Mindfulness. It’s a pretty straightforward word. It suggests that the mind is fully attending to what’s happening, to what you’re doing, to the space you’re moving through. That might seem trivial, except for the annoying fact that we so often veer from the matter at hand. Our mind takes flight, we lose touch with our body, and pretty soon we’re engrossed in obsessive thoughts about something that just happened or fretting about the future. And that makes us anxious.
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
Yet no matter how far we drift away, mindfulness is right there to snap us back to where we are and what we’re doing and feeling. If you want to know what mindfulness is, it’s best to try it for a while. Since it’s hard to nail down in words, you will find slight variations in the meaning in books, websites, audio, and video.
You know how it feels when stress starts to infect you from the outside in—you might tense up, your stomach may hurt, or you might even find yourself feeling totally numb. One of the most helpful actions you can take in the moment is to pause, evaluate your mental state, and pull yourself out of a heightened state of anxiety and back down to a calm, clear-minded base. In her book, Stress Less: Stop Stressing, Start Living, mindset coach and yoga teacher Kate Hanley offers 100 simple mindfulness exercises to help you do just that. We share eight of our favorites below.
Inhale Calm, Exhale Stress
Here’s a way your breath can come to your rescue. Try this: As you inhale, imagine calm pervading every cell of your body, carried in by your breath. As you exhale, visualize every iota of angst you’ve got being drawn out of your body where it can evaporate into the air. Repeat as many times as you like, but know that even one of these breaths—done with intention—can create a noticeable change.
Just One Question
Stress can make everything feel urgent, which makes it hard to decide what to do next. Step out of the swirl by sitting still long enough to take a nice full breath, in and out. Then ask: What do I most need right now? Whatever answer bubbles up, resist the urge to question or dismiss it. Instead, honor it the best you can in this particular moment. Asking helps you see that you know more about what you need in any given moment than you might think you do.
Watch the Clouds
Clouds are nearly always present, yet they are always changing—just like your thoughts. Cloud-watching then can be a great way to develop some objectivity on the nature of your thoughts. Spend five minutes watching the sky—notice what the cloud shapes remind you of, see if you can detect movement or changes in appearance. Just as a massive bank of gray clouds will inevitably clear into blue sky, or a cloud shaped like a rabbit will morph into an ice cream cone, your current thought pattern will also transform.
Do Something You’ve Been Avoiding
Resistance creates stress, the same way dragging an anchor behind a boat creates drag. What can you do today that you’ve been putting off? Can you make that phone call, pay that bill, or run that errand? This isn’t about getting something done for the sake of crossing it off your list. It’s about unburdening your mind. Doing something that’s been nagging at you means you can be done with it.
Be prepared to enjoy a surge of energy that you can then use on something you do want to do.
Tell Yourself Something Kind
There’s a reason mindfulness and meditation teach us to detach from our thoughts—so many of them are self-directed and downright mean. Break the cycle of negative self-talk by thinking of one nice, true thing about yourself, such as: I have a big heart. I’m doing my best and getting a little better every day. I am so lovable.
For the rest of the day, repeat it silently any time you notice your thoughts veering in a self-critical direction, or when you simply want a little lift.
Find a Touchstone
You know a day at the beach or a hike in the mountains makes you feel grounded, calm, and content. While you may not be able to immerse yourself in natural settings every day, you can stay in touch.
Keep a rock in your pocket or in the change compartment of your wallet. Use a beautiful red leaf as a bookmark. Turn a seashell into a paperweight. Then you’ll always have a reminder that there’s a great big beautiful world right outside—a helpful thought whenever your problems are feeling too big.
Check in with Your Gut
Most of us have unhelpful voices in our heads (or coming out of the mouths of family or friends) second-guessing our every decision. Yet every single one of us—including you—has a wise voice within. Think of it as your inner Yoda—it is knowledgeable and compassionate, and always knows the best next step.
Anytime you need to make a choice, invite your internal wisdom to weigh in by answering this question: If there were no wrong choice, the option that feels the most right and true to me is _________________________ .
Focus on What’s Right
Quick, name three things that are going on right in this moment. Perhaps you’re sitting some place comfortable, the sun is shining, and your pet is curled up nearby. This is an exercise you can do anytime you notice your stress levels rising, because allowing yourself to see what’s right in front of you, right now, helps keep you grounded in this moment. And what a relief that is!