You might already be aware of what mindfulness is and why it's important, but let's talk about specifically HOW to use it to help combat stressful, overwhelming, and frustrating situations. Remember, the overall goal and purpose of mindfulness is to bring you back - head, heart, and body - back into the present moment.
Tip #1: JUST BREATHE
Ok, ok, I know when you're stressed the LAST thing you want to hear is, "Just breathe", but just hear me out for a second....
Think about a time (or even multiple times) that you've experienced a lot of PHYSICAL stress:
Intense exercising or physical competitions - pushing your body past its usual comfort zone
Experiencing fears and phobias - from haunted houses and public speaking to more traumatic situations like a car wreck or a near-death experience
The Adrenaline Rush that comes from bungee jumping, rock climbing, cliff diving, skydiving, etc.
In those moments your heart is pounding, your mind is racing, and the most natural thing we instinctively do to get through it is to.... breathe. We take slow deep breaths to calm our minds and heartbeat, regulating our bodies so we can get through the experience in the best, safest way possible. And it works, right? So if it helps in physical situations, why wouldn't it also help in mental situations?
The mind and body are so connected that you might even notice that when you get stressed out, sending yourself in a downward spiral of thoughts, beliefs, and emotions, that it might even start to cause you physical stress as well. So if you can catch it at the start, and do something so easy it's almost second nature to stop or AT LEAST slow down the process, you'll see how helpful "just breathing" can actually be.
How to Breathe Mindfully
The best way to use this technique is not JUST to breathe, but to BREATHE MINDFULLY. What does this mean? It means to be conscious and aware of your breath - the depth, feeling, timing, action, existence, EVERYTHING - and in your observation of the breathe your mind is not thinking of ANYTHING ELSE. This isn't just about the action of the breath, it's about the THINKING and FEELING of the existence of the breath while you do it.
There are different styles of mindful breathing, but one of the basics I've found to be most helpful is a general slow breath technique. This is what it looks like, and what you should be thinking while you're doing it:
Breathe In... "I am breathing in"
1... "I am
3... "I am breathing out"
Repeat this as many times as necessary until you feel regulated and calm. I personally like to do it at least 3 times, then see if I need to keep going and will continue until I feel better. In REALLY stressful situations, I've literally done this technique for 5-10 minutes straight. So try not to shut down if it takes a while for it to work - ESPECIALLY if you're not used to doing this - just work on being present, focusing on your breath, and it WILL happen.
It's also EXTREMELY beneficial to accompany your breathing technique with stretching. Even if it's just a quick reach your arms up-rotate your wrists, ankles, and neck stretch, or a full body stretch-forward fold, or a whole stretching-yoga session. We don't stretch enough in general, but moving your body and energy flow before or after doing this breathing exercise is an extra gentle push to bringing you into the present moment in your body.
Tip #2: ENGAGE YOUR SENSES
I hear a lot of people joke about the popular "5, 4, 3, 2, 1" technique, and this is the same thing as the first tip - you have to try it, REALLY try it, before downplaying it as not working. Again, we're working on mindfulness here. So if you're overwhelmed and think, "Yeah, ok, I see this thing, hear that, whatever, I don't feel any better" you're COMPLETELY missing the point of this exercise.
This is not a cure, nor is it meant to make your problem go away or even to make you feel 100% better in a second. It is simply a tool to help you re-center and regulate yourself, mentally and physically, so you can have awareness and presence. With this awareness you can:
Know what your needs are and how to get them met
Respond versus react, in the most clear-headed and healthy manner
Separate yourself mentally and emotionally from the situation
Today I just want to talk about the basics in tuning into your senses. This is helpful because it brings you into the awareness of your physical surroundings and out of your head/heart where we can sometimes get trapped during stress. When you're engaged with your senses, it becomes easier for us to re-train our brain to focus on one thing at a time.
As we've already established the mind and body are very connected. So once I'm aware of what my body is doing, and what I'm physically experiencing, I can then bring it in and start focusing on what I'm feeling, where is that feeling in my body, and why I'm feeling that way. Then in the future, if I start to notice that feeling again, I know how to process it. Likewise, if I start to notice a feeling in my body, I might realize I actually had an emotion I wasn't processing that's now affecting me on a physical level. Connecting with your body in this way is so helpful in improving your self-awareness and showing you patterns or suppressions, so you can grow and change in a healthy way.
For example, I hold my stress in my shoulders. So when I'm stressed, I can feel my shoulders tense up and know it's time for me to pause before I can handle the situation in the best way
Similarly, I hold my anxiety in my stomach. So if I start to feel tightness there, I ask myself if there's any suppressed anxiety, when a few years ago I would've just assumed I was hungry and ignored it
Personally, I find this tip better to be customized based on the individual and your lifestyle. It can look so different for everyone, but everyone can do this no matter what your life looks like. Therefore, I'm just going to share some examples of what this can look like and how you can use it, but by all means feel free to add or suggest your own ideas for what feels right to you. Some ideas include:
Go on a walk or a hike - focus on feeling the movement of your feet on the ground, hearing the sound of your walking, smelling the fresh air, seeing your feet or your surroundings
Sit outdoors or in nature - hear the birds chirping, see the wind blowing through the trees, smell the trees and plants around you, feel the ground or grass beneath you
Exercise - do crunches or push-ups, run, yoga, etc. and feel the movements in the entirety of your body
Sensory Tools - glitter jar, slime, stress ball
Cook - smell the ingredients and the food, taste it as you go, hear it cooking, focus on one step at a time
Clean - hear the scrubbing, feel the clean surface, smell the soap, see the cleanliness and organization, focus on one step at a time
Take a bubble bath - Feel the temperature and flow of the water on your skin, smell the bubbles and watch/hear them as they pop
Freeze an orange - feel the texture and coldness, smell the fresh orange scent
Again, the key is to REALLY focus on what you're doing or experiencing because it brings you back to that present moment. You can go through the motions, doing these things, and not even realize it. But the point is to try to connect to it deeper, feel each experience fully.
Sometimes you may be in a stressful situation and you're not able to go outside or take a bath in that moment, but I'd challenge you to find something you CAN do in those moments just as engaging as those. Maybe it's going on a short walk, splashing water on your face, slowly eating a snack or drinking a cup of tea, or even just being present in your body and aware of your surroundings from right where you're sitting.
If you prefer something more structured and specific, the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique might be even more beneficial for you. It's the same idea and concept of what we discussed, FULLY acknowledging and experiencing each individual piece, but more guided. To do this, you identify 5 things you see around you, notice 4 things you feel, focus on 3 things you can hear, acknowledge 2 things you can smell, then state 1 thing you can taste. I find it's also helpful to identify these things out loud if possible, as it REALLY helps you get into the present moment and options.
Tip #3: DO SOMETHING RELAXING AND PRODUCTIVE
NO, I don't mean "productive" as in accomplishing something, working harder, or doing more than you already are. You're more than likely ALREADY doing so much, and this is not meant to add more to your plate. When I say productive, I mean do something that excites you, fuels your soul, gives you a heightened level of happiness and joy, and inspires or motivates you. It also should be something that doesn't stress you out, but RELAXES you. This could look like:
playing a musical instrument
Playing with your kids/pets
The key is that you want it to be something that gets you in the flow, doesn't cause you more stress, and is something that you can fully engage in while you're doing it. Similar to the items listed in the second tip, it's not JUST about the action, it's about being fully present in the process of doing the action. And I want to reiterate again, this isn't outcome-based productivity; it's fulfillment-based productivity. If the thing that brings you joy happens to also be something that's causing you a lot of stress (for example you're a digital artist who loves what you do, but you're currently overwhelmed with projects), I recommend trying a couple of things:
Do a project for yourself, but make sure you're doing it FOR YOU and aren't being critical, a perfectionist, or judgmental about it. Create just to have fun and create, leaving the pressure out. No one has to see it, it's just about being present and intentional in the activity in that moment
Use this as an opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. Learn or experiment with something you've always wanted to try, and take a step back from your usual creative outlet, returning to it later with a fresh perspective
We tend to put a lot of responsibility and pressure on ourselves to fulfill our obligations, which is partially why we're feeling stressed and overwhelmed, we push ourselves to exceeding limits and most often it's consumed with stuff we don't even want or like to do. But how would your life - and overall happiness - change if you put more of a priority on your hobbies and doing what makes you truly happy? I'm not saying to throw your responsibilities away, but just envision how you would feel if you spent at least 10-30 minutes every day doing something you love? How would your overall mood and mindset shift? How would it ACTUALLY affect how you show up for your responsibilities and obligations?
You might have noticed tv, social media, and video games were not included, and that was intentional. There's three specific reasons for that, first being that you're not present nor in tune with yourself (physically and mentally) in any of these activities, which is the purpose of mindfulness activities. Secondly, it's overly stimulating where although it may FEEL relaxing in the moment, it can actually be more stress-inducing and triggering - even if we aren't aware of it. Third, they easily become too much of a coping mechanism or crutch to avoid dealing with our thoughts, feelings, or life that they can turn into almost an addiction really fast. One of the most common things I've heard from clients who start coaching with me is:
"I get so overwhelmed that I just shut down, and next thing I know it's been HOURS of me scrolling through social media, playing Animal Crossing, or binging Netflix. Then I don't have the energy to do anything because I feel guilty, worthless, and lazy having just wasted so much time. I have so much I want to do, I just wish I had the motivation and didn't get so distracted and sucked in."