How to practice mindfulness meditation to reduce anxiety, improve focus, and unlock creativity
meditationfocuses your attention on the present moment and your current feelings.
- Benefits of mindfulness mediation include reduced stress, better focus, and improved well-being.
- To practice mindfulness meditation, focus on your breath and what you feel without judgment.
People are often caught up thinking about the past or future, preventing them from living in the present moment. While it's helpful to reflect on your past and plan for your future, these thoughts can, at times, cause stress and disrupt focus.
That's where mindfulness meditation can help. Unlike other forms of meditation that use visualizations or mantras, mindfulness meditation often involves focusing on your breath, but without trying to change or control it.
"The purpose is to train the ability to focus, so that you can move your attention at will and not get so pushed and pulled by the contents of your mind," says Sasha Dingle, a certified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher, and founder and director of Mountain Mind Project.
Here's how to practice mindfulness meditation and its potential benefits.
What is mindfulness? Mindfulness involves paying attention to the current moment, without judging yourself or what you observe. You can practice mindfulness in different ways, including mindfulness meditation, mindful eating, walking meditation, or noticing how the air feels on your skin.
Benefits of mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation can help you:
- Regulate your attention and emotions. "You concentrate better, you're calmer, you're less emotionally reactive," says Phillip Romero, MD, a psychiatrist who teaches mindfulness meditation through the online wellness platform VIVAYA.
- Reduce anxiety and stress. A small 2013 study of people with generalized anxiety disorder found those who participated in an MBSR program had reduced anxiety and were better able to react to stress. Romero suggests practicing a few times a week to see results.
- Improve quality of life. Research has found that mindfulness programs can improve the quality of life in people with medical conditions such as asthma, cancer, and diabetes.
- Unlock creativity. Your brain can be in a "doing" state when you're busy, or a resting state called divergent cognition, which is like daydreaming, Romero says. Mindfulness meditation allows that daydreaming state, which is when the brain is most creative, he says.
Although mindfulness meditation often reduces anxiety, it can sometimes worsen it. For example, workaholics may have trouble slowing down and stepping away from tasks, Romero says. "This can produce more anxiety for certain people who aren't used to going [to a meditative state of mind]," he says.
For this reason, mindfulness meditation programs should be personalized, based on the individual's experiences and needs, and the outcomes they want, Dingle says. For example, the approach might be different for someone with chronic, severe anxiety versus someone who just wants to be able to temporarily calm down before an important performance.
How to practice mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation often involves sitting still, focusing on your breath, and zoning in on what you sense and feel, says Dingle. Here's how to practice it on your own:
- If you are lying or sitting down, feel the contact of the ground against your body, or feel your clothes against your skin. You can keep your eyes open or closed.
- Breathe normally, and notice if your attention is pulled to any sensations in the body.
- If so, name the sensation, such as heat or tension.
- Don't try to create any meaning from the sensation, such as "this tension means I worked out too hard at the gym." Instead, just name the sensation.
- Notice any emotions that come up and name them, like anxiety, sadness, or joy, without judgment.
- If you feel pulled away by your thoughts, try to return your attention to something you can feel in your body or breath.
This process of naming sensations and emotions helps build the awareness that is the heart of mindfulness, Dingle says.
You can practice mindfulness meditation alone, but it's best for a beginner to learn from a teacher, Dingle says.
For example, you can find guided mindfulness meditation:
- In person at meditation centers
- In person at some yoga studios
- Through online meditation platforms, such as Mountain Mind Project and VIVAYA, with live classes or pre-recorded guides
- Through apps, such as Smiling Mind and UCLA Mindful
Mindfulness meditation can be informal, such as taking a few minutes before you walk into an important meeting, or more formal, such as taking a 30-minute class, Dingle says.
Beyond naming sensations without judgment, mindfulness meditation might include practices such as a body scan. In a class, you might lie down or sit comfortably, while the teacher guides you through a body scan, focusing your attention on your breathing, and then through your body, from the top of your head down to your toes.
How long and how often should you practice mindfulness meditation?
You can practice mindfulness meditation for as long or as often as you like. However, 15 minutes a day, a few times per week, is a good start for a beginner. Then you can work your way up to an hour each time, which is when you can reap the most benefits, says Britt Gustafson, a mindful life coach who teaches mindfulness meditation through VIVAYA.
You can practice mindfulness meditation at any point in the day, but it might be helpful to do it at the same time each day to build a routine. For example, Gustafson says she likes to practice every morning before she gets out of bed.
"You're kind of checking in with yourself and getting yourself aligned. I feel personally that that sets the tone of your day," Gustafson says.
Some people like to meditate in the evening, in the transition between work and home, Dingle says. You can also reach for mindfulness meditation when you need it, such as before an important event, or when something goes wrong and you want to ground yourself, she says.
Once you learn mindfulness meditation from a guide, you can practice on your own whenever you want to. "It could be done anywhere. I've often done meditation just walking and being mindful about what I'm feeling," Gustafson says.
Many apps make mindfulness meditation easily accessible. But if they don't work for you, don't judge yourself - find a teacher, Dingle says.
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