As a personal development coach with a specialty in incorporating mindfulness into real life, I work with a lot of clients who have tendencies to overthink and who are prone to generalized anxiety. And time and again, I’ve seen that as they learn how to non-judgmentally observe their thoughts and redirect the mind to what’s happening in their bodies in the moment, they start to shift out of anxiety and into a more grounded and present state of mind, both in the short- and long-term.
Why? Because your body, unlike your mind, can’t time travel into the future or the past. It’s always firmly rooted in what’s happening right now, so when you are focused on it, you can’t also be dreading what’s to come or re-hashing what’s already happened. And what a relief that is.
But when I first talk to many of my clients about incorporating techniques from yoga and meditation into their daily lives, they initially get nervous. They typically say, I’m already feeling so busy and overwhelmed—how can I possibly add one more thing to my daily to-do list?
The good news is there’s no law that says you must meditate on a cushion in a quiet room for at least 20 minutes, or that the only kind of mind-body practice that counts is taking two hours out of your life to go take a yoga class. I am a firm believer in micro-practices—things you do for perhaps just a few breaths, even in the midst of your everyday life.
When you train yourself to bring your attention back to your body here and there throughout your day, you can reduce your stress and anxiety levels in a meaningful way. Over time, practicing those in-the-moment remedies can add up to a shift in perspective that is far-reaching and long-lasting.
Whether you are stuck in traffic, getting another project piled on your plate at work, having a tense conversation with your partner, or lying awake at night, unable to sleep, you have the power to choose a path that leads to less stress.
How do you do that exactly? Below I share four techniques that anyone can do. They are goof proof. You can’t be “too” anything for these—too busy, too ADD, or even too tired. All they require is that you remember them and have the willingness to actually drop the stressful thoughts you’re thinking in the moment and focus on something else instead.
Feel your feet on the floor. Your feet accompany you everywhere you go and they connect you to the ground, which is a source of support and stability. Yet we spend most of our time floating somewhere above it, whether we’re riding in the car, lying down in bed, or curled up on the couch. Anytime you want help returning your attention to what’s happening now ask yourself, where are my feet? If they’re already on the floor, place your attention on feeling their connection to the ground. If they’re not on the floor, bring them there. In addition to helping you tap into the steadiness of earth, bringing your feet to the floor helps you shift your attention to what is happening with your body in the here and now.
Take a breath. It may seem basic, but this micro-exercise is mighty powerful. Whenever you notice yourself getting stressed or anxious, choose to pay attention instead to one full breath. To help you stay present to the whole breath, you can think to yourself “inhale” as you breathe in and “exhale” as you breathe out. It will take all of a few seconds, but it will give you a chance to pause. And in that pause, you give yourself a little vacation. The momentary suspension of thought gives you enough distance to be able to respond to the situation at hand instead of react to it.
Extend your exhales. This breathing exercise is perfect for those sleepless nights. Lying on your back, inhale for three and exhale for six. Keep going for at least 10 breaths. In order to expel that much air, which you may be surprised to discover you have available, you’ll have to engage your diaphragm. Doing so helps turn off the stress response and cues the relaxation response, which helps set the stage for sleep. Also, the counting turns your mind away from your swirling thoughts. For even extra benefit, rest your palms on your belly—it’s a simple gesture that’s highly soothing and will help you release into sleep.
Open your ears. Generally, we tend to focus in on the one noise we want to hear and tune out everything in the background. But in this exercise, you want to be more like a tape recorder, which registers every audible noise within hearing distance. To do it, keep your eyes open (if you’re tired) or closed (if you’re hyper-alert or over-stimulated) and simply see how many layers of sound you can detect. Whenever you notice that you have started thinking—which you inevitably will—just go back to listening. You can do this while you’re in conversation with someone, riding on the bus, sitting at the dentist office, or even at your desk at work when you need a mental break.
In a time where the prevalence of anxiety is making headlines in the New York Times—and mental health-care costs are often not covered by insurance, having self-help strategies in your back pocket can save your sanity and your wallet. But perhaps the best part of these mini mindfulness practices is that they are always available—all you need to do is simply remember to do them. By choosing to redirect your thoughts, you have the power to change your mind.
Kate Hanley is the author of Stress Less: 100 Mindfulness Exercises for Calmness and Clarity, as well as a yoga teacher and personal development coach. In addition to writing books and working one-on-one with clients, Kate teaches and speaks at companies and events on easy but powerful ways to reduce stress and get more done. She’s been quoted in a range of publications, from the Harvard Business Review and Fortune.com to Allure and Seventeen, and has appeared on the Today Show, where she noticed seconds before the cameras started rolling that her sweater was on backwards. It was the perfect opportunity to practice what she preaches. Kate lives in Providence, RI with her husband and two kids. Visit her at www.katehanley.com or on Twitter at @KateHan.