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8 mini mindfulness practices that can melt stress all day

7 minute read
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Sometimes it takes only a few seconds to slow down racing thoughts and find a sense of calm.

Amy Marturana Winderl

By Amy Marturana Winderl

What causes stress in your life? (We’ll wait.)

We may not know your exact answer, but there’s no doubt a few things came to mind within seconds. Between work, school, family and other obligations, you’re likely juggling a lot.

Translation: Stress is almost impossible to avoid. That’s why it’s so important to have a few quick and easy strategies for managing it.

Enter mindfulness techniques.

“Mindfulness is a form of meditation that helps us pay attention to the present. It can help regulate racing, repetitive thoughts, which is what happens when we’re experiencing stress and anxiety,” says Babita Spinelli, L.P. She’s a licensed psychotherapist, mental health consultant and CEO of Opening the Doors Psychotherapy and Babita Spinelli Group in New York City.

“By paying attention to the present, we are less reactive to our environment,” Spinelli adds. “It offers a pause from the momentum and speed of our minds. And it helps us make more conscious choices with intention and compassion.”

Mindfulness practice can even change how our brain functions, says Brenna Renn, Ph.D. She’s a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Brain-imaging studies have shown that people who meditate regularly are able to slow down and change their brain-wave patterns.

Because of how well it works — and how easy it is to do — many mental health practitioners like to incorporate mindfulness practices into anxiety and depression treatment. “It gives a person one more tool in their toolkit when they’re feeling overwhelmed,” Renn says.

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The key is to make mindfulness a regular part of your routine. “It’s not going to be as helpful during an especially anxious time if you’re not doing it regularly,” Renn says.

She recommends setting aside time to practice mindfulness every day. That way, you can get used to what it feels like when you don’t “need” it. “Then when you do need it, it’s sort of on call and you know how to fall right into that moment,” she says.

One of the best things about practicing mindfulness is that it doesn’t require any grand gesture or huge time commitment. The mini mindfulness techniques below are proof. Try them out to find your favorites. Then aim to do one (or more) on most days.

Mindfulness practice #1: Set a daily intention

This is a great thing to do every morning. You can also do it at the start of each week or any new chapter in your life that may benefit from defining a purpose. The upside of daily intentions is that they can be super specific. They help you focus on what’s most important to you right now.

“Ask yourself how you want to feel or what you would like the day to look like,” Spinelli says. Another way to think about it: If you look back on today, what would’ve needed to happen for you to feel good about it? Your intention can be as simple as “I intend to be open-minded today” or “I intend to drink more water today.”

Once you’ve landed on an intention, say it out loud a few times. You might also write your intention on a sticky note. Post it on your bathroom mirror, the refrigerator or your desk so that you have a visual reminder throughout the day.

Mindfulness practice #2: Do a mindful body scan

When you’re feeling stressed, pausing to scan your body for tension may seem like the last thing you should be doing. But that’s exactly why you should.

It takes only a few minutes and ultimately helps you better manage stress and anxiety. It brings attention to your body so that you notice different sensations, Spinelli says.

Here’s how to do it: Sit or lie down comfortably. Take a deep breath through your nose and out through your mouth. Close your eyes, noticing how your body feels right now.

Starting at the top of your head, mentally scan down your body, noticing any tension, pain or discomfort you feel. Remember, you’re not trying to change anything. Just notice how your body feels as you slowly focus on each part down to your toes.

After you’ve done this check-in, you can take a few minutes to massage or stretch any of the tight spots you noticed.

Mindfulness practice #3: Write in a gratitude journal

Journaling is a great way to practice mindfulness. After all, it’s essentially writing down your thoughts, which requires being present. Add in gratitude and it’s a 2-for-1 wellness boost.

There’s a growing body of research on the benefits of being thankful for people, things and situations. Studies have found that counting your blessings can help you stress less, sleep better and even reduce the risk of heart disease.

Spinelli suggests spending a few minutes each morning writing down 3 or 4 things you’re grateful for. They don’t need to be big things — you might be grateful for the big, comfy bed you get to sleep in each night.

“Practicing gratitude helps us balance our anxiety by forcing us to consider what is working in our lives and what we can appreciate,” Spinelli says.

Mindfulness practice #4: Use the quieting response

This technique involves visualization and deep breathing to combat stress. It’s recommended by The American Institute of Stress. The best part: It takes only about 6 seconds to feel a difference.

Here’s how to do it: Start by smiling inwardly with your eyes and mouth. Just imagining yourself smiling makes it happen. Release the tension in your neck and shoulders.

Next, imagine there are holes in the soles of your feet. Take a deep breath and visualize air flowing in through these holes and moving slowly up your legs. Then picture it moving up through your abdomen and into your lungs.

Relax your muscles as the air moves, from feet to chest. When you exhale, visualize the hot air moving back down and coming out the same holes in your feet.

This short and sweet exercise will help stop the stress response in its tracks so that you can find your calm again.

Mindfulness practice #5: Schedule outdoor time

Nature is powerful medicine. A large body of research links time spent outdoors with improved well-being and better cognitive function. (That means it helps you think more clearly.)

Even as little as 10 minutes of sitting or walking outside is enough to feel calmer and more refreshed, according to a review of 14 studies published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Spinelli’s recommendations: Go for a morning walk before the craziness of the day starts. Sit outside and slowly sip your coffee. Or block off 10 minutes on your calendar midday to get some fresh air and do a mental reset.

Mindfulness practice #6: Try deep breathing

Sometimes simply pausing to notice your breath is enough to feel calmer and more centered, Spinelli says. There are many different breathing exercises. The common thread is that they all focus on deep, diaphragmatic breathing (sometimes called “belly breathing”).

The diaphragm is the muscle just below the ribs and above the stomach. You want to breathe in deeply so that your diaphragm expands, not your chest. This gets you breathing deeply and slowly. In the process, you can calm down the stress response and decrease muscle tension and anxiety.

The easiest way to get started: Inhale for 3 to 5 seconds, then exhale for 3 to 5 seconds. Continue breathing in this slow and intentional way until you feel calm.

Mindfulness practice #7: Say hi and bye to negative thoughts

Part of being mindful is recognizing that life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows all the time. Bad things and negative thoughts happen. The key is to not let them spiral and take over your day, week or more.

When you have a negative thought or worry, Spinelli suggests pausing to acknowledge it. Then visualize attaching that thought or worry to a leaf and letting it float away in the wind. This is an easy way to change your outlook in just a few seconds.

Mindfulness practice #8: Do a hand-awareness exercise

This quick exercise helps get you out of your head and into your body. All you need to do is grasp your hands tightly for 5 seconds, then release, Spinelli says.

The key is focusing on how your hands feel, not thinking about or doing anything else as you squeeze your hands. Continue doing this, keeping your attention on the sensation, for as long as you need to feel calm.

Additional sources
Time spent outdoors helps reduce stress:
Frontiers in Psychology (2020). “Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review”
Visualization and deep breathing to combat stress: The American Institute of Stress (blog) (2012). “Take a Deep Breath”
Deep breathing as a mindfulness practice: UNC Health Care (2016). “Diaphragmatic Breathing”
Regular meditation can change brain function: BioMed Research International (2015). “The Meditative Mind: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of MRI Studies”
The benefits of gratitude: Clinical Psychology Review (2010). “Gratitude and Well-being: A Review and Theoretical Integration”
Gratitude can help reduce the risk of heart disease: American Psychological Association (2015). “A Grateful Heart Is a Healthier Heart”