What Is Mindfulness? Does It Reduce Stress?

What Is Mindfulness? Does It Reduce Stress?

You’re a busy professional. You’ve got stuff to do, a place to be, and people counting on you to perform. You barely have time for your non-work life, let alone time for anything “woo-woo.” In fact, you probably juggle a lot with the time you have, maybe even feel a good amount of stress trying to balance all the plates you’ve got spinning. 

I hear you. I get it.

If you can, stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and hear me out. In the same way that the smallest seeds can become huge trees, mindfulness is more powerful than you think. 

Have you ever stopped to wonder why you’re spinning so many plates, or if you even enjoy doing what you’re doing? Have you ever wondered if there is a different way to live your life where work doesn’t overstep on every other part of your life? 

mindfulness and stress related work-life balance
When work is a bit too much and you are stressed.

You may be one of the best at what you do for work, but how many times have interpersonal conflict, difficult decisions, or unexpected problems thrown you for a loop? Wouldn’t it be great to feel confident knowing you’re also one of the best at the soft skills needed to navigate when these issues come up?

Developing mindfulness can strategically support how you navigate your personal and professional life, promoting all the soft skills that help you handle the stress that comes from conflict, difficult emotions, and heavy workloads. 

When you start practicing mindfulness it can literally rewire your brain and body to respond to stress in a more resilient way while empowering you to live more intentionally. 

If you’re curious and want to learn more, read on. 

What exactly is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the experience of being fully present, aware, and non-judgmental. We often live stuck in our heads, overthinking, continually processing and preventing experiences that shouldn’t be or planning things that could be. 

Mindfulness helps us to get out of own way.

Although the word mindfulness seems to imply being fully in your mind, the concept is actually more about getting out of your own head.

Thinking is essential to being human but there are other essentials we often overlook. Have you ever eaten something and realized you barely tasted it because you were so lost in thought? 

Have you ever been around people you care for, yet when it was time to leave you realized you weren’t really paying attention the way you would have wanted because you were stuck in your thoughts, worried about work? 

Being present and nonjudgmental sounds good enough, but let’s be honest–at first glance, it can feel impractical. A constant state of mindfulness might seem unrealistic for those of us with work to do, bills to pay, and relationships to maintain, right? What place does mindfulness have in our lives when we already have so much on our plates? 

If we can be lost in thought, where can we be found?

When we are deep in thought it is nearly impossible to be connected to the rest of our senses. We might get some things done but we are checked out and feel disconnected from the things important to us and the people we care about. You don’t have to ignore your responsibilities in order to live a mindful life. 

Coming to our senses 

Mindfulness brings us back to awareness in a nonjudgmental way, back to the current experience of the present moment. We experience the present moment with our senses. Where do we find our senses? Our physical body. 

Mindfulness is how we find our way out of our heads and into the other, often neglected parts of ourselves that also bring depth and value to our lives. Our feelings and sensations. 

How I Stumbled Upon Mindfulness

As a former ICU nurse with my masters in nursing education I’ve always valued evidence-based practice. For years I dedicated my career to being there for people when crisis hit- helping them stabilize their health when possible so they could live longer lives, staying up to date with current research so I could provide the best care for my patients.

I became frustrated because medical care treated health crises but didn’t support lifestyle and mindset changes that could improve or even prevent many of the health problems causing the health crisis in the first place. Many patients were stuck in a cycle of health crisis, hospitalization, stabilization, discharge home, and eventually another health crisis. 

Their crisis was my stress- every shift felt like fighting fires with teaspoons of water. Yes, many would improve and be discharged, but so many of the same types of patients with preventable health problems kept coming that sometimes it felt overwhelming. 

Keeping people alive was only the first step towards health; what people really needed was the ability to move towards healing and health. I became really curious about evidence-based ways to promote health, not just physical but also mental and emotional too.  

During a course on mindfulness for stress relief I was shocked at all the research on the negative health impacts of stress as well as research supporting mindfulness as evidence-based practice to support the lifestyle and mindset changes necessary for all aspects- physical, mental, and emotional. 

This was it. Mindfulness IS for everyone, especially those of us who have too much on our plates. The research supporting the profound impact of mindfulness is one reason I decided to co-found Transform and Thrive, and I wanted to share what I’ve been learning with you. 

From Surviving to Thriving 

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction 

Mindfulness isn’t about disconnecting from our thoughts or the stressful parts of our lives. It’s not about trying to achieve a stress-free life (spoiler alert- a stress-free life doesn’t exist).

It’s about developing a flexible yet strong mental, emotional, and even physical way to live that will help us thrive even during times of stress. 

To expound on the quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn, learning to swim and surf can take fear away from being in the waves, which is a much different experience than barely being able to stay afloat. 

To get beyond barely surviving we have to take time to practice different responses to stressors as well as different postures towards ourselves, our responsibilities, and even relationships. 

We can’t change the nature of life, but we can learn how to live differently.

Mindfulness isn’t just a general but vague intention to be present. A mindfulness practice includes a variety of evidence-based exercises that help us get in the habit of being aware and nonjudgmental in the present moment. 

When we practice mindfulness it gives us a pause from simply reacting to whatever is going on in our lives and a chance to reorient our awareness, with kindness, to the present moment.  

You don’t practice mindfulness to get better at mindfulness, you practice mindfulness to get better at living your life

When we practice mindfulness consistently it will rework our brain’s relationship with stress and change our life for the better. As we practice mindfulness, we will become more aware of what we can and cannot change, and then be more able to make purposeful and positive changes in every aspect of our lives.

How does mindfulness work?

When we experience something stressful it’s not “just in your head.” Our bodies have a real physical response to anything that  when a stressor triggers the release of stress hormones. Like dominos, these hormones affect multiple areas of the body including the brain, the heart, arteries, muscles, stomach, and even skin, leading to internal and external feelings we describe as stress. 

Sometimes stress feels like…

Our pulse and blood pressure skyrocket. Our cheeks flush and we start to sweat. Our jaw clenches and different muscles tense. We breath fast and shallow, or even hold our breath. We might even feel nauseous. This is fight or flight; our body is primed to keep us alive and able to respond to whatever is threatening our lives. 

But how many times do we have this stress response when there is no threat of physical danger? It might feel like the end when you have to give a speech… but is it really? We say we would rather die than have to sit through another meeting with that horrible coworker or client,.. but do we really? 

Our subconscious automatically initiates this chain reaction for every perceived threat, affecting our entire body, actually life threatening or not. 

Mindfulness is about recognizing when this chain reaction begins to occur.

It is practicing mindfulness on a regular basis because you know stress is a part of life. 

It is responding to stress by first taking a moment to BE mindful. To stop and observe what you are feeling and how those feelings are expressed physically without judging yourselves for having that initial response in the first place. 

This is counterintuitive to what we are wired to do. 

In our bodies, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is, as the name suggests, behind the scenes running things on autonomic, doing its best to keep us alive precisely by staying on high alert for what it deems “good” or “bad.” 

It’s an understatement to say this is beneficial for times we are NOT conscious–keeping us breathing when we are asleep, digesting our food, etc. It’s good our body doesn’t shut down completely when we’re asleep, right? 

The ANS is especially helpful when we have protective reflexes and reactions to immediate danger. We don’t consciously make our “fight or flight” response happen yet our body and mind take in details, define threats, and cause an initial physical response. It’s helpful to have our eyes blink when something flies at our face or to have the energetic flush of adrenaline coursing through our veins if a bear comes across our campsite and we need the energy to get away quickly. 

This autonomic process gives us the best chance to stay alive in life or death situations. 

The problem is that most of us aren’t constantly in life or death situations.

What happens when we know we are safe but our subconscious continues to react as if we are in imminent danger? Our ANS doesn’t differentiate between immediate life-threatening stressors and other stressors, like a shortened timeline for a project, unpaid bills, tech malfunctions, or even strained relationships. 

The constant state of stress can be extremely disorienting and uncomfortable, mentally, emotionally, and physically, especially if it’s been going on for any amount of time. 

If we aren’t in danger then staying on high alert will sap our energy and resources while leaving us vulnerable when something truly dangerous needs our full attention. Often, our stress tolerance becomes so low that we feel triggered by any little disturbance that comes our way. We made knee-jerk survival decisions instead of having the presence of mind to make decisions aligned with our true values. We are making it through but not really thriving. 

What we exercise gets stronger 

In response and to keep us alive as long as possible, parts of our brain literally change to support a strong stress response. The amygdala, the emotional regulation center of our brain, grows larger to manage and regulate all the emotions produced from stress, while the gray matter in the frontal cortex thins out- who needs to process information with critical thinking and logic when staying alive is a priority?

Mindfulness practice is one way to physically and mentally recalibrate a healthy balance. A daily mindfulness practice helps us become more aware of what we are feeling and be able to respond on purpose, not just thoughtlessly react. It helps you reconnect with your values and make it easier for you to orient your work and life around those values rather than being run ragged by striving to survive. We can prevent being stuck in autopilot, freed to thrive when it truly is safe to do so. 

Research on Mindfulness

You’re busy enough already; you don’t have time to invest in something that isn’t proven to actually work. Mindfulness has measurable health benefits. In addition to improvements in self-awareness and general wellbeing, people who practice mindfulness consistently have evidence of a better functioning ANS–lower cortisol (often referred to as the stress hormone) levels, more stabilized blood pressure, and increased stress resiliency. 

Measurable Changes in the Brain

One study in particular (Dispositional Mindfulness & the Brain) found some parts of the brain involved in stress response (the amygdala) and also sadness (the caudate) in participants of the study who were instructed to be mindful (nonjudgmentally aware) during the study actually decreased in size. Other studies support these findings as well (Mindfulness & The Amygdala, Stress & The Amygdala).

A way to understand this is to think of when weightlifters stop lifting heavy weights–the larger physical size is no longer needed to support the heavy weights so the muscles decrease in size. The amygdala and caudate are no longer getting the signals to pump out all the stress hormones and so they decrease in size. Our brain literally changes to have a less intense fight or flight response. This helps us not overreact when we are stressed AND get back to a peaceful state after dealing with the stressful situation. Who wouldn’t want that? 

Measurable Changes in the Body

Research findings from Mindfulness Based Stress Relief (MBSR) programs show significant improvement in immune system function, blood pressure, and emotional health, and more (Multiple Research Links here).  Additional studies have shown increased capacity for creativity and problem solving (Mindfulness & Creativity). 

Mindfulness is not a replacement for medical care but it is an evidence-based practice that can be used alongside other healthy habits to holistically enhance your mental, emotional, and even physical health. It is exciting to see how research continues to highlight and explain the benefits of a daily mindfulness practice.

What exactly are Mindfulness Practices? 

Many people think of mindfulness and imagine the popular idea of meditation–sitting quietly, cross-legged, trying to think about nothing, and maybe taking some deep breaths while you’re at it. 

If you aren’t very good at this OR this doesn’t seem very appealing to you, don’t worry–this isn’t mindfulness. 

Meditation is one way to practice mindfulness but it isn’t about being still or emptying your mind. 

Mindfulness is about taking time to become aware of the various sensations you experience and pay attention to them with curiosity, patience, and kindness. Because we have so many senses sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell) there are so many ways mindfulness can be exercised.

Formal Mindfulness Practices

Formal mindfulness exercises are done daily for a set amount of time, committed to practice like any other habit or workout. 

There is no striving for perfection or a desired experience–it’s more about checking in with yourself and what you experience in the present moment, whatever that may be. The following is not an exhaustive list but includes some of the most common and most studied formal mindfulness practices. 

The Body Scan is one of the most common and most studied formal mindfulness practices. Taking time to check in with how we are feeling (without judgment or critique) from our heads down to our toes- are we holding tension anywhere like in the shoulders, forearms, or even the jaw? Is there pain anywhere, physical or emotional? When’s the last time we paid attention to our ankles or wrists? 

Yoga can be another formal mindfulness practice. The word “yoga” literally means “to yoke,” specifically referring to connecting the mind and body. Mindful yoga is when you bring awareness to how you are feeling in relation to how your body is moving. Although there are many styles of yoga, hatha yoga is often recommended for mindful yoga. Hatha is less about flowing movement and more about using the correct form and intentional breathing to hold a posture. This requires focused awareness of the body’s physical abilities while also creating an opportunity to practice a non-judgmental attitude towards the body’s limitations, a literal embodiment of mindfulness. 

The Breath Awareness Meditation is another way to practice mindfulness- can we take a little time each day to hone in on the multiple sensations we experience while air is flowing in and out of our lungs? Notice where we feel movement, or maybe lack of movement. What temperature changes do we experience with the exchange of air in and out? Reconnecting with our bodies daily by focusing our awareness on our breath is one of the easiest (and stealthiest!) ways to practice mindfulness. 

The Walking Meditation-A daily walk can be a formal mindfulness practice when we choose to set aside any thoughts and focus on the feeling of our feet connecting with the earth, our bodies movement and breath, the sensation of the wind (even wind created by our own movement), and become aware of ourself and our surroundings. For those unable to walk, this can be done in a wheelchair or even in the water, focusing on the sense of movement and awareness of our bodies in the space we occupy.

The Raisin Meditation is a formal practice of mindful eating. Although it doesn’t have to be a raisin (I’m not gonna lie, I prefer to do this meditation with dark chocolate instead of a raisin) the point is to focus on the experience of eating. What is the shape, feel, texture, and taste of the food you are eating? How is your body responding to the food? Is your mouth watering? Do you feel the urge to chew? When was the last time you really paid attention to the full experience of eating? When you practice a daily raisin (or chocolate or whatever you prefer) meditation you will begin to notice how you are more mindful when eating at other times as well. 

Informal Mindfulness Practices

Almost any sense-based experience done with nonjudgmental awareness can be an informal mindfulness practice. These are ways you can creatively incorporate mindfulness into your everyday experiences even though you aren’t setting aside intentional time to do them. 

When I started practicing mindfulness the formal practice came easier to me than the informal (give me a checklist and I will check the boxes!). I was so used to staying busy and not being in the present that I didn’t even think to incorporate informal mindfulness throughout the day. 

As my own ability to be mindfully present grew I began to notice how many ways I could be more present in even the simplest of experiences. Maybe you’ve practiced mindfulness without knowing it when you savored a sip of wine or took a much-needed deep breath. 

One of my favorite exercises is when it rains–closing my eyes and focusing on everything I can hear, not only the drops of rain on the grass or the grumble of thunder but also the birds joining with their song. 

Every time we eat or drink it can be an opportunity for mindfulness when we pay attention to the taste and feel of a bite of food. Being truly present in a conversation, paying attention with active listening is another example.

One of my own quirky yet quick mindfulness practices is when I wash my hands–pausing my thoughts while focusing on the whole experience: making tiny bubbles that reflect mini rainbows through the light, the cool feel of water refreshing my hands, the smell of my favorite hand soap. It can make a fairly mundane task actually pleasant while giving you a chance to center yourself back to the present moment.

Making Your Own Mindfulness Practice

With as little as 15 minutes a day, you will reap the benefits of a mindfulness practice when you incorporate formal and informal mindfulness exercises in your schedule. It helps me to think about it like any other daily habit like physical exercise or even flossing- it is fairly easy and might not seem like a big deal but over time a mindfulness practice will maintain and enhance your health on multiple levels; physically, mentally, and emotionally. Instead of directly reducing the stressors we experience in our lives it equips us to deal with stress of any kind, thereby increasing health and wellbeing. As you can see from the previous examples, almost anything can be a mindfulness practice- it’s more about HOW you do whatever it is you decide to do.

“The real invitation of mindfulness is to bring the domains of being and doing together so that our doing comes out of being. And when the doing comes out of being, it’s an entirely different kind of doing.”- Jon Kabat-Zinn

You are a busy professional and stress is an unavoidable part of your work and life. Mindfulness will not only help you approach whatever you need to do with greater awareness, focus, and clarity, it will help you become more stress resilient and prevent burnout. Here at Transform and Thrive, we believe in being more than just successful as an entrepreneur or business person. Mindfulness can help you experience a healthier way to handle stress in all areas of your life.