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Mindfulness training: 3 steps to less stress

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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives and livelihoods in ways that few thought possible just a short time ago. Social distancing, stay-at-home orders and the uncertainty of how this world-changing crisis will be resolved have added to the collective stress we all feel.

Amidst all the bad news, here’s some good news: You have real control over the decisions that will affect your health. In addition to the recommended safeguards of washing your hands and wearing a mask in public spaces, you can also be proactive at reducing any stress you feel. By changing the way you think for a few moments each day, you take steps along the path leading to a healthier you. It involves a simple process called mindfulness training.

What is mindfulness training?

Mindfulness training influences health through stress reduction pathways, which, in turn, leads to improved health.

SIU Medicine’s certified mindfulness-based stress reduction expert Ruta Kulys, LCSW, explains that mindfulness, or the awareness of one’s thoughts and emotions, has the potential to help us respond rather than react.

“Mindfulness training helps people develop their ability to concentrate and to be aware of their experience as it occurs,” says Kulys, who has been teaching this practice to patients for more than 17 years. “Mindfulness practice gives us the tools to learn about ourselves— our emotions, our thoughts, what we are feeling in our bodies. These are constantly changing, and the practice is an opportunity to pay attention and to take stock of our own experiences.”

In its most basic form, mindfulness training is learning to pay attention. “It’s simple, but it involves practice,” she says. “Just as you can’t learn to play the piano in a day, mindfulness training takes regular practice.”

What are the benefits?

“People who practice regularly report feeling calmer, better equipped to handle the tough times and better able to appreciate the good times,” says Kulys, who is also certified in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.

The American Psychological Association points to numerous benefits of mindfulness training:

  • Reduced rumination
  • Stress reduction
  • Boosts to working memory
  • Improved ability to focus
  • Less emotional reactivity
  • Improved cognitive flexibility
  • Relationship satisfaction

A Carnegie Mellon University study suggests mindfulness training can reverse the body’s stress response. When people become stressed, activity in the prefrontal cortex decreases while activity in other areas of the brain, including the hypothalamus and amygdala, increases. Chronic stress can lead to a range of health issues, including hypertension, GI problems, anxiety and depression. Mindfulness training, however, has been shown to reverse this pattern, softening the biological response to stress.

“If we don’t have healthy ways to manage stress, then we use unhealthy ways to manage stress: We eat too much, drink too much, work too much and further damage our health,” explains Kulys. But, mindfulness training can help individuals identify and manage that stress. “If we pay attention, we notice the small physical and emotional signs of stress,” says Kulys. “If we don’t pay attention, we often don’t address the signs of stress until they become too big to ignore.”

How can you learn to be more mindful?

Kulys recommends beginning with three simple steps:

  1. Stop and breathe. Noticing your breath brings you into the present and can help you shift out of automatic-pilot.
  2. Do one thing at a time. Take a break from multi-tasking and pay attention to doing just one thing. When you are eating, just eat. When you are listening to someone, give them your undivided attention.
  3. Check in with yourself. Take a few minutes each day to take stock of what you feel in your body, what your predominant mood is and what thoughts are occupying your mind. Use this information to inform how you take care of yourself.

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