Our world moves fast, and it isn’t showing signs of slowing. Whether it’s a high-pressure job, the demands of raising a family, the news, COVID-19 or all of the above, you may find it difficult to slow down and focus on what’s right in front of you. Being mindful of the present can help keep us grounded and can provide short- and long-term health benefits.
In 2018, researchers at Harvard University found that being mindful affects your genes and can lower your blood pressure. Other studies have linked mindfulness to reductions in stress and anxiety and even improved brain function.
So what is mindfulness, and how can you make it part of your routine?
What is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness gets a bad rap for sounding new age-y and futuristic, but it is essentially being present in the moment,” says Dr. Stacy Ogbeide, clinical health psychologist with UT Health San Antonio. “When we’re under a great amount of stress we tend to live in the future and focus on things that aren’t completely within our control.”
Planning for the future isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Dr. Ogbeide said. But focusing too much on what hasn’t happened yet removes our focus from the present, which is where life happens. The same is true of dwelling on things in the past that we can’t change.
Mindfulness is focusing on the present moment and identifying what we can control right now.
“We have a society obsessed with what’s going to happen. We love to plan and feel safe. We did that even before 2020, but COVID has put an even greater amount of pressure on everyone because of the added uncertainty,” Dr. Ogbeide said.
This rise in stress has been noted by the American Psychological Association, which reported that stress levels are up significantly in 2020 as compared to 2019.
Higher reported stress levels are linked largely to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The increase is especially noticeable in parents and children. The disruption of everyday routines such as going to school or interacting with friends or colleagues forces us to worry about what might happen next.
That distraction from what’s happening right in front of us is why mindfulness is more important now than ever. Being mindful can actually make us healthier people.
The health benefits of mindfulness
There is a lot of research on the benefits of mindfulness, including perceived health function and stress levels, says Dr. Ogbeide. “Hypertension, chronic pain conditions—mindfulness can help with the management of those conditions. It helps us function better as humans,” Dr. Ogbeide said.
The benefits of mindfulness largely come down to the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of our autonomic nervous system.
Dr. Ogbeide explains, “When you are under a great amount of stress, your sympathetic nervous system—the fight or flight reflex—kicks in. This increases your heart rate, and you might actually feel physical effects like chest pressure or sweaty palms.”
Fight or flight is an important impulse to protect us in potentially dangerous situations, but too much stress too often or for the wrong reasons can lead to the development or poor management of chronic health conditions.
“The parasympathetic nervous system is like the opposite of fight or flight,” Dr. Ogbeide said. “Activating it can slow your heart rate and relax your body’s stress response. Mindfulness is one of many ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and relieve stress.”
Relieving stress can also have positive repercussions for your immune system. “When your stress response is constantly elevated you can be more susceptible to things like the common cold or the flu,” says Dr. Ogbeide.
So, in addition to potentially staving off chronic conditions later in life, in the short term you might also stay healthier and fight off infections. All it takes is a little focus on the present moment.
Incorporating mindfulness into your routine
The good news is that adding mindfulness to your day does not necessarily mean adding extra tasks to your routine. Practicing mindfulness should not be a chore.
Dr. Ogbeide encourages her patients to start small by taking advantage of moments when you are already locked into a task. “One thing I recommend to patients is to start with your morning routine. We have this dedicated time where we normally go through the motions of getting ready, and we tend to focus on everything we have to do that day,” she says. “I encourage people instead to focus on their environment: What does the water feel like? Is it too hot? Is it comforting? How do the bubbles feel on your skin? How does your shampoo smell?”
Focusing on that moment and nothing else can trigger your parasympathetic nervous system to slow your heart rate and ultimately give you more clarity when you are ready to face your day.
“It’s not about adding anything extra in terms of the time you put in,” Dr. Ogbeide said. “It’s just adding a layer of awareness to what you’re already doing and paying attention to your senses.”
You can try it during other moments in your day:
- How does your coffee smell? Is the mug warming your hands? Can you see the steam rise up above the cup?
- What does the vacuum cleaner feel and sound like?
- How does the laundry feel when it comes straight from the dryer?
- What does the onion look and smell like when it starts to cook as you prepare dinner?
Once you have a handle on what it means to focus yourself in the present moment, a great next step is to try out a mindfulness app for guided sessions. There are many mindfulness applications available in your smartphone app store. Good apps to start out with are Headspace and Calm.
If you don’t want another app to keep track of, there are plenty of video resources available on YouTube, but Dr. Ogbeide cautions that you should look for videos uploaded by universities or other reputable organizations. She also recommends smartwatches such as FitBit, which incorporate mindfulness routines into their programming.
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed
The important takeaway, Dr. Ogbeide said, is that it’s completely normal to feel stressed out right now. “With so much going on in our world, don’t blame yourself for feeling out of sorts,” she says.
If you recognize you need help, a good place to start is with your primary care provider. He or she can connect you with behavioral health resources.
Remember how important it is to take action when your stress becomes too much to handle. “Please reach out for help,” Dr. Ogbeide said. “We're here to help and take care of you.”
University Health offers comprehensive behavioral and mental health services and programs for adolescents and adults.