Mindful Practices to Optimize Mental Health

Chronic stress is written off as inevitable in our modern society, but it damages the brain by changing its structure, volume and function. Many people then turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking, drinking, overeating and often struggle to get quality sleep. There are many ways to reduce stress, and it is important to learn what works best for you and stick to it. Several ways to combat stress are mindfulness meditation, exercise, breath work, yoga, Tai Chi, social support, relaxation and enjoyment, and a healthy diet avoiding caffeine, sugar, alcohol, cigarettes and drugs.

Meditation: The benefits of meditation include decreased stress and anxiety, the ability to make new neural connections in the brain, improved concentration and focus, and increased resiliency to stress. There are many types of meditation, and the best style for each person depends on their needs.

To get started, try a simple mindfulness practice where you simply sit quietly and watch your breath. Consistency is key with meditation. Start small, aiming for 2-5 minutes at the same time each day. Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Focus on the breath flowing into and out of the nostrils. As the mind wanders, bring your attention back to the breath. When able, let the mind rest in silence.

Yoga: Regular yoga practice can help decrease stress, anxiety, pain, insomnia and depression while improving the overall quality of life. There are many styles and teachers available, so it’s important to find a practice that feels right to you. To get the full benefits you should focus on linking the breath with your body movements and use the time to turn in and let go of external distractions. If you need to calm the mind and body, bring your awareness to your exhale and make it slightly longer than your inhale. Forward folds or putting your legs up the wall will have a relaxing, calming effect. Restorative yoga is a practice in which you use props to be supported in poses and you stay in them for long holds. This is a very relaxing practice and a great way to reduce stress. Yoga nidra is a systematic relaxation that actually brings you into alpha and theta brain waves where you can enjoy a deep sense of relaxation and peace.

Mindful Eating: Eating mindfully helps make sure we are optimizing digestion, but also helps reduce stress by being more present throughout the day. The keys are to be fully present when you eat by limiting distractions and stressors at meal times. It is important to listen to your inner body cues and notice any emotions or preferences without judgment.
Benefits of mindful eating include reducing the amount of food consumed, reduced weight and disease risk. It also increases satiety and satisfaction after meals and can help decrease emotional and binge eating.

Choose one meal per day to eat mindfully. Eliminate distractions such as work, computers, TV, or driving. You may eat alone or with others, but if you’re eating with others make sure you’re not too distracted by the conversation. Take one bite and put down your fork. Focus on the taste and texture you’re experiencing. Chew the food thoroughly (at least 20 times, maybe more for tougher foods) before taking another bite. Notice how you feel and don’t worry if you slip a bit, it’s a technique to practice each day.

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