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Why We Need Mindfulness More Than Ever

If the past year has taught us anything, it's that mind-body practices are essential for chilling out in these hot-mess times.

Stress is ubiquitous in our North American lives, but recent world events have left many feeling more anxious and unsure than usual. What with a deadly pandemic, a contentious election in the US, racial strife, fires, floods and murder hornets, it's no surprise we haven't been this frazzled in over a decade, according to the 2020 American Psychological Association's Stress in America survey. But even though we may have more demands o us (looking at you, endless work Zoom calls and homeschooling kids!), it's more important than ever to embrace some mindfulness practices that will help us relax and regain balance. We have to actively work to reduce our stress if we are all going to get through this. Mindfulness can reduce our anxiety levels, by helping us tune in to the present moment.

Here are some of the practices that can help you stay grounded and sane:

1. Conscious Breathing

People under stress breathe very shallowly and rapidly, which can make them feel worse. It seems so simple, but conscious breathing can reduce that stress in just two minutes using the 5-5-7 breathing technique where you inhale for a count of five, hold for a count of five and exhale for a count of seven. Repeating this ten times takes less than two minutes and will instantly ground you and create a reset. It helps get oxygen into all parts of your body and the breath work forces you to become more present in the moment. This practice has been shown to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as improve attention levels.

2. Gratitude Practices

The easiest and most effective way to stay grateful is to attach it to things that you tend to do each day. You can perform this in the morning before you start your day or at night just before you go to bed. Imagine going sleeping on all of that goodness?!?! Not sure how to start a gratitude practice? Ask yourself these three things: What am I grateful for? What did I do well today? What do I want in my life? Simple right? If you're not into journaling, I also recommend creating a gratitude jar. When a poignant moment of gratitude hits, write it down and add it to the jar. At the end of the year, open the jar and go through all of the things you were grateful for that year. Talk about starting a New Year on a high vibe!

3. Nature Baths

The idea of nature baths comes from a Japanese concept called shinrin-yoku, which means "forest bathing." Forest bathing isn't about getting wet though! You're simply "bathing" in the energy and fresh air of the outdoors. It's an easy way to connect with the outside environment—it can be as simple as taking five minutes to savor the sunlight on your back porch, or a long meditative hike in the woods. Really close your eyes and focus on all the sensations—the feeling of the warm sun on your face, the sound of birds chirping, the smell of the leaves around you, the taste of the fresh air in your mouth and the feeling of things like tree bark on your hands. Spending two hours forest bathing and performing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and yoga lowers blood pressure and boosts your mood.

4. Body Scans

A body scan meditation is a practice where you focus on the parts of the body in a gradual sequence from head to feet. You start by bringing your attention to your head and neck, and if you notice any pain, tightness, or other discomfort, acknowledge it and any emotions that come with it. The take some deep breaths and visualize the tension leaving your body. The best part? Performing a mindful body scan for 20 minutes a day for eight weeks significantly reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone I mentioned earlier.

5. Daily Affirmations

Affirmations are positive statements that challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts. If you find that you're caught up in negative self-talk or rumination, affirmations can help you break out of those cycles so that you are empowered to make positive changes in your life. Those that recite self-affirmations report significantly less stress and are more effective at solving a complex task than when they didn't. They also help us respond in a less defensive and resistant way, and they help increase optimism, which in turn can buffer the effects if stress. When coming up with an affirmation, keep it short, simple, and specific. Start with the words "I am," and include an action word ending in "-ing". For example, "I am so grateful that I am losing weight," or "I am attracting joy into my life."

6. Thoughtful Prayer

During stressful times, many of us turn to religion or spirituality for support. Prayer itself is a type of mindful activity. It encourages the meditative practice of acknowledgement and acceptance, and allows you to focus more intently on forming a deeper spiritual connection. In fact, the act of praying stimulates the same parts of the brain that are activated during meditation. One way to do this is to start your prayer with gratitude for the positives in your life: having a home, clothing and close family and friends. Next, while praying, think about ways you can embrace acceptance. This doesn't mean giving up a desire for change, but making peace with your present to you don't beat yourself up about the past or worry about the future. Next, set your intentions. If you feel like you need help and guidance, ask for it. Affirm whom you ultimately want to be, and how you want to feel. Think about what you want for your loved ones, and others in the community, and what you might be able to do to make this happen.

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