If you're searching for a way to alleviate stress that doesn’t require you to set foot in a gym, have needles prodded into your skin, or come with a cringeworthy price tag, look no further. Generally speaking, when it comes to stress, it's important to remember that it's a psychological strain, though of course it can still take a toll on your physical body. But it starts, first and foremost, in the brain. Ergo, to relieve stress, you have to start at the source, which is exactly why practicing something like mindfulness can help with stress. By focusing your attention and energy on becoming more aware of stress — what it feels like, and why you feel that way — the better equipped you’ll be to cope with any overwhelming emotions that may come your way.
I realize that people strive to master mindfulness almost as much as ~balance~ these days, but just because a concept is trendy doesn’t mean there isn’t any truth to it. Sure, some buzzwords floating around social media really are just fluffy terms with little to no substance backing them up. Mindfulness, however, is not one of them, and that fact has been proven time and again, and again, according to new research.
During a long-term study that began in the fall of 2011 and continued through spring of 2015, researchers from the University of Bristol in the UK analyzed how mindfulness helped medical students respond to stress. Per the university’s press release on the study, researchers recruited 57 participants to enroll in an eight-week mindfulness training program, in which they attended weekly sessions that lasted for about two hours each. Students were also encouraged to commit to a 30-minute mindfulness practice outside the program.
The mindfulness training sessions covered topics ranging from how the mind works, how stress can have a direct impact on your life, the red flags that mean someone is dealing with stress, meditation practices, as well as other coping techniques, and more. To assess what the participants learned in the program, researchers conducted six separate interviews that lasted roughly 60 to 90 minutes, and asked the students to fill out a survey. According to the study’s findings, published in the journal Education Research International, the medical students reported improved empathy, communication skills, a better understanding of how to manage their workload, as well as a greater understanding of their own thoughts and emotions.
In short, Dr. Alice Malpass, a co-author of the study, said that, through this research, the university has successfully shown the value of “mapping how mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can break the cycle of specific vulnerability through the development of new coping strategies,” and how these practices can help students feel less stressed.
Translation: The more someone practices mindfulness, and the more they can become aware of their stress triggers, the less likely it is that stress will affect them in a major way. It’s not exactly what I would call a groundbreaking discovery, but it’s definitely another convincing bullet point in favor of mindfulness practices.
Now maybe you’re skeptical, and, if you are, I can’t totally say I blame you. The whole purpose of practicing mindfulness is to be mindful and hone in on the situation at hand. At first, this might seem counterintuitive, right? Why would you want to focus on what’s making you stressed? Wouldn’t that just intensify those feelings of anxiety? It could, but from what I understand, acknowledging the issue is only a very small part of the coping process.
Dr. Reshmi Saranga, psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry, tells Elite Daily that mindfulness is about being in the present moment, but it’s also about strengthening your sense of self-awareness. “[Mindfulness] helps you develop a clear perspective of your strengths, beliefs, emotions, and more,” she explains. Once you’ve developed a better understanding of who you are, what makes you tick, and what coping mechanisms actually bring down your stress level to a point where you feel centered again, you’re set. That is what you can achieve through mindfulness.
There’s also more to mindfulness than sitting pretzel-style on a couch cushion, closing your eyes, and listening to a voice guide you through a meditative practice. According to Susan Petang, a certified stress management and transformational life coach and author of The Quiet Zone, practicing mindfulness can spark a neurological reaction in the brain.
“When we experience real or perceived trauma, our brains develop new neural pathways between the amygdala (where most emotion originates) and the prefrontal cortex (where we translate these emotions into thought and action),” Petang tells Elite Daily. This, at large, affects your brain chemistry, she explains.
What that means is, essentially, when you create new neural pathways that act as your brain’s go-to response when it experiences stress, mindfulness confronts the issue at hand, as well as any emotions your current situation dredged up from your past, and it helps you develop "a more positive outlook on life" overall, says Petang. In other words, the more you practice mindfulness, the more likely it is that your brain will adopt mindfulness as its go-to coping mechanism in times of stress.
Sounds great, right? Well, it gets better. For those of you who might moan and groan over the mere thought of having to sit still and really zone in on your zen, there are lots of other ways to practice mindfulness if traditional meditation isn’t your jam. For example, Clarissa Silva, a behavioral scientist, relationship coach, and creator of the Your Happiness Hypothesis Method, tells Elite Daily that in lieu of meditation exercises, breathing exercises can work just as well.
"Add a breathing exercise before something that can cause you to react negatively," Silva suggests. "For example, if someone walking into your office unexpectedly causes you anxiety, before reacting, take a deep breathe, and then react. This helps in moderating the feelings of anxiety."
Clever, right? Essentially, any practice that encourages you to pause, put things into perspective, and then respond to the situation at hand, is going to be a valuable one. Even physical activities, such as yoga, dancing, even going through the motions of hugging a friend, can make you feel more at ease, Morgan Balavage, a wellness coach and yoga instructor, tells Elite Daily. The goal is to stay grounded, stay connected, and be gentle with yourself. You're only human, and hey, stress is part of that. It's normal to feel stressed once in awhile, but it's not OK to let it consume you.