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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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.”
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.
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