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  • Writer's pictureTim McCurdy-Myers, MSc, RP, RMFT

Mindfully Manage Your Stress

Stress, like many difficult experiences, pulls us out of the moment and into an uncertain future. If you are feeling highly stressed, odds are good that you are feeling like there is too much demanded of you, and you don’t have the time/energy/skills to make it all happen. This typically feels terrible and leaves us imagining the world crashing down around us.


There can be benefits to stress. Used correctly, it allows us to work harder and faster, be more decisive, and perform well. These benefits decrease if we are always stressed, and in modern life many of us are always stressed. After all, isn’t there always something you probably should be doing? This is where using mindfulness to manage stress comes in. Rather than spending our time thinking about the next problem that needs tackling, it brings us back to the present moment. Here, at this moment in time, everything is okay.


Taking a few minutes each day to mindfully engage in your experience can help to reduce your experience of stress. It can also help you be more effective the rest of the time. After all, if you were running a marathon you wouldn’t go at a sprint the whole time, you would choose times to slow down and replenish.


All mindfulness tasks will bring you to the present moment, and encourage you to focus your mind on something you normally let slip by. Our brains are constantly editing out sensory information that they deem unnecessary. Mindfulness is about slowing down and being present with those sensations. You will find your mind wandering while you try these tasks. That’s normal. Learning to be mindfully present takes practice. When you notice your mind has wandered, gently return it to the task at hand.


Here are a few ways you can experiment with mindfulness. Some of them will be a better fit for you than others, play around with them or try to come up with your own. The best mental health practice is the one you will do.


1) Take some mindful breaths. Breathe slowly and intentionally. Feel your belly rising and falling with each breath. Try to notice each moment of the breath and cover it with attention. You may find you can feel air moving over your nostrils, or through your throat. As you fill with breath, you may find your clothes move or press onto your body. Do not try to change any of these experiences. Just notice them.


2) If the stress is overwhelming and you find your thoughts racing, try the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Look around and name to yourself 5 things you can see. Then 4 things you can touch. Listen for 3 things you can hear. Breathe through your nose and find 2 things you can smell. Bring your mind to your mouth and identify 1 thing you can taste. This is a great tool for slowing down racing thoughts. If the thoughts are still racing at the end, do it again.


3) Go to wash your hands. Take your time to notice the temperature of the water and the sound it makes as it exits the tap. Smell the soap as you coat your hands and feel the foam lather as you wash. When drying, feel the sensation of the towel or the hand dryer. Try not to rush through this process, but instead attend to every part that you normally do on autopilot.


4) Do a body scan. Starting at the top of your head, slowly scan down the entirety of your body. Try to notice anywhere where you are feeling tension in your body and release it as you go down. People often hold tension in their face, neck, shoulders, and abdomen. The more you can release this tension, the more you are likely to feel relaxed and safe in your body. Holding tension in the body can increase a sense of anxiety and stress.


5) Choose an object around you and run it through your sensory experience. Really look at it. What does it look like? Why is it shaped that way? Touch it. What do you notice about the way it feels? Can any parts of it be moved? If you move it, does it create any sound? Does it make any noise on its own? What does it smell like?


These are just places to start. You can mindfully engage in any activity, not just the ones listed here. I encourage you to experiment with different activities to find the ones that work best for you.


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