Mindfulness Exercises For Anxiety & Stress

Reduce anxiety, stress, and depression with these free mindfulness exercises. 

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Anxiety and Stress Reduction Through Mindfulness Practice

The Prevalence of Anxiety and Stress in Modern Times

The sources of stress in modern day life are seemingly infinite. From small everyday situations to major life events, it can feel as if there is no escaping the constant pressure of the world around us. Since the dawn of the digital age, a time when it was believed that computers would make our lives easier, life has, in fact, become busier. Perpetual distractions live just a click away, making it challenging for us to find stillness and a sense of inner peace. Even when we are doing seemingly nothing, we are still doing something – surfing the web, making appointments, and taking care of all sorts of business. There is plenty of action in our lives and very little meaningful restoration.

Along with this persistent experience of stress has come the prevalence of anxiety. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, there is in fact a subtle difference.

Stress is what arises when an interrupting factor enters the picture, upsetting the normal balance of ones life. It is the body’s response – physical, mental, and/or emotional – to any uprising that requires some type of change or action. It can be acute, being a response to a single circumstance, or chronic, being a response to prolonged pressure. These days, the chronic variety of stress is on the rise.

The signs of stress vary from individual to individual, including but not limited to:

  • Physical signs – chest pain, headache, sweating, increased heart rate, fatigue, upset stomach, digestive issues, and sleep disturbance
  • Emotional signs – anxiety, lack of motivation, irritability, depression, emotional withdrawal, and feelings of overwhelm
  • Behavioral signs – changes in appetite, substance use or abuse, overuse of technology, increased emotional upset, and poor communication leading to relational struggles

Anxiety, on the other hand is the experience of fear, nervousness, or apprehension. It is often the result of stress. It can be mild or severe, varying in the impact and control it has over ones life. Often, it is not clear what has triggered the anxious feelings, but the experience is strongly felt nonetheless. Sometimes, this lack of understanding the cause perpetuates the feelings.

There are numerous signs that point towards anxiety, including but not limited to:

  • Feelings of nervousness, fear, or worry
  • Feelings of panic or impending doom
  • Difficulty concentrating on the present moment
  • Fixation on or rumination over the past or future
  • Feelings of agitation or irritability
  • Difficulty regulating emotion
  • Difficulty falling asleep, or waking in the middle of the night with a racing mind
  • Withdrawal from support systems or the outside world at large
  • Physical symptoms of stress (i.e. digestive issues, sweating, and fatigue)

Both of these experiences, and the collection of symptoms they nurture, are widespread in our modern day cultures. While there may be numerous approaches to handling stress and anxiety, mindfulness practice is often the most undervalued and infrequently practiced remedy of them all. However, the use of mindfulness is growing as many of us are looking to get right to the root of our experience. As we become familiar with the ways that mindfulness can help us to manage our experiences of anxiety and stress, we find ourselves inspired to practice (and perhaps even come to teach) these invaluable skills.

How Mindfulness Helps to Manage Anxiety and Stress

When stress and anxiety arise within the body and mind, mindfulness techniques can help to reduce the perceived control that these responses hold over our thoughts and our actions. By drawing our awareness back to the present moment while maintaining compassion and curiosity towards our experience, we begin to disentangle the thoughts that bind us to our perception of whatever has arisen. Mindfulness techniques empower us to take a closer look at the present moment, disempowering our experience of fear at the same time.

Mindfulness as it applies to stress reduction has been well researched and well respected since the late seventies. In 1979, Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) at the University of Massachussets Medical Center. As a complementary approach to traditional medical treatments, the eight-week program helps to address a variety of conditions, including but not limited to:

  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Grief and depression
  • Digestive distress
  • Heart disease
  • Chronic illness and pain
  • Fatigue
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Sleep issues

One related study aimed to examine the effects of an 8-week mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction course. Results showed that the program significantly reduced stress-related psychological symptoms and increased participants’ sense of control over their lives. It was concluded that mindfulness meditation techniques could be a powerful coping strategy, holding power to transform the way that we respond to life stressors. Another body of research discovered that MBSR training has the potential to reduce emotional reactivity in individuals with social anxiety disorder, while also promoting emotional regulation.

The Role of the Breath

In many mindfulness techniques, the breath plays a central role. As a continual stream of life force flowing into and out of the body, the breath acts as an anchor to help root us more deeply into the present moment. As we come into the present, the mind softens and our attachment to anxious thoughts subsides.

When we find ourselves up against a stressor, whether real or perceived, the body engages its fight-or-flight response. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in, releasing a variety of stress hormones to combat whatever we are up against. The heart speeds up, the digestive system slows, perspiration begins, and the breath becomes shallow. While all of these responses are natural defensive mechanisms of the body, they do not serve us in times when the stress lives predominantly in our minds – in those quiet hours of rumination, worry, and fear.

As we become more mindful of the body, specifically in moments of mental stress, we start to observe these physiological reactions. When we notice them, we are in a better position to counteract them. One way to overcome the fight-or-flight response is to consciously observe the breath and to then guide it deeper into the belly. This is known as diaphragmatic breathing, a technique that initiates the relaxation response.

This response, a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson that helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, helps to:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Slow the heart rate
  • Improve digestion
  • Release anxiety and depression
  • Ease mental chatter
  • Harness one’s capacity for focus and clarity
  • Relax the body’s muscles
  • Restore hormonal balance
  • Improve circulation

All of these physiological movements work to restore our sense of balance, in both body and mind. It can be said then that our breath is a powerful tool for alleviating stress and anxiety. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”

Mindfulness Techniques to Reduce Anxiety and Stress

There are numerous techniques we can start practicing in order to help alleviate the stress and anxiety that is present in our lives. The three following exercises can be explored to help better understand these challenging feelings and to help overcome them. There are also a multitude of online resources available to help assist with this discovery. In any moment, choose which approach or recording feels right for you.

For these practices, come into a comfortable seated position with your back straight. You may sit on the floor, on a cushion, or in a straight-backed chair – whichever position best suits your present needs. Relax your shoulders and rest your hands on your thighs or in your lap. Gently close your eyes.   

Observing Your Thoughts

  • Take a few breaths to ground yourself into the present moment, observing any sensations as you inhale and as you exhale.
  • Continue to breathe mindfully as you expand your awareness to note the surface beneath you and the air around you. Without judgment, simply become aware of what you observe, using your senses to draw your mind into the body.
  • As thoughts arise, begin to view them as if you are an outside observer. There is no need to condemn or criticize your thoughts; simply open your awareness to them, detaching yourself from the stories they attempt to weave.
  • Whenever a thought arises, observe what is moving by noting its associated action. For instance, you might note, “planning,” “thinking,” “fearing,” or “rejecting.” Keep these notes action-based, refraining from attaching any sense of the I-self to them
  • Notice the body and mind beginning to relax as you practice. Continue this for as long as is necessary to bring yourself into a greater sense of peace and comfort.

Mindful Breathing

  • Draw your awareness to your breath, beginning to observe its present depth, rhythm, and flow. Do not try to change it in anyway; simply observe the way it moves and any way that it might change as you focus on it.
  • You may notice that the breath naturally deepens within a minute or two. If it remains shallow, shift your attention to your belly, observing its rise and fall. Notice if the breath moves alongside this shift in attention, filling your lungs to their full capacity and pushing into your abdomen.
  • Allow the chest space to soften, opening a little bit wider if the deepening process proves challenging. In any case, continue to focus on your breathing, allowing it to bring your attention away from your thoughts and into the life force that nourishes your body.
  • Continue to breathe mindfully for a minimum of five to ten minutes.

Sound Meditation

  • Explore the power of sound by listening to an online audio recording designed for meditation, such as a binaural beats track. These tracks are best listened to through headphones.
  • Come to a comfortable position, perhaps lying down in this case for maximum relaxation. Press play and draw your awareness to your breath for a minute or two to ground yourself.
  • Continue to breathe mindfully as you open up your sense of sound. Open your heart and mind to the transformative power of this form of music.
  • Listen for 20 to 30 minutes, allowing sound to be your primary focus for this meditation.

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