Using Mindfulness to Manage Stress
Nowadays most of us realise what it feels like to be stressed out. You could say it’s a natural part of living in the 21st century and all the challenges our lives bring us.
For instance, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, the number of people experiencing high levels of stress more than doubled during the coronavirus lockdown, with more than 25 million estimated to be affected by severe anxiety during that period (i).
But while a certain amount of stress may be something you can’t avoid, if you’re under too much stress for too long it can affect your physical and mental wellbeing. You can find out more about stress, including what it is and how it affects you by reading our guide to stress symptoms and signs.
Meanwhile, the good news is there are various therapies and techniques that can help you cope with your stress levels. One of the more popular of these at the moment is a technique called mindfulness. With its origins in Buddhism, mindfulness may not be anything new, but interest in it has soared during the last decade or so.
In a nutshell, mindfulness aims to help you become more in tune with your thoughts, feelings, sensations and surroundings. The idea is that you become more aware of the here and now, so you worry less about what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow.
You could think of it as the opposite of mindlessness. Can you, for instance, remember a time when you walked into a room only to forget why you went in there in the first place? This sort of thing happens because our minds are so easily distracted from what we’re doing in the moment. And the effect can be even stronger if we’re constantly multi-tasking and juggling different demands all the time.
How does mindfullness reduce stress?
According to one small-scale study, practicing mindful meditation may be an effective way to transform how we respond to life events (ii). Researchers elsewhere have found that mindfulness may help us to control our emotions more effectively, which may improve our mood as well as our ability to handle stress (iii). Experts reviewing studies on stress in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine have also concluded that mindfulness shows promise for stress management in healthy people (iv). Mindfulness may also help make us more resilient towards stress, suggests another study, published in the journal BJGP Open (v).
Meanwhile the UK’s Mental Health Foundation’s online mindfulness course has been the subject of a study by scientists at Oxford University (vi). The study suggests those who completed the course saw their stress levels drop by 40 per cent and their anxiety levels by 58 per cent.
What else can it help with?
Mindfulness is widely thought to help people cope with stress, but it’s been linked with other mental wellbeing benefits too. The NHS, for example, says paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you – can improve your mental wellbeing (vii). Mindfulnesscan help us enjoy life more and understand ourselves better.
The NHS also claims mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent depression in people who’ve had three or more bouts of depression in the past (vii).
As well as reducing your levels of stress, anxiety and depression, mindfulness may also be good for:
Helping you feel less overwhelmed
Improving your sleep quality
Changing the way you think and feel about your experience (especially stressful ones), and helping you think about them more positively
Boosting your ability to manage difficult situations
Helping you to spend less time churning things over in your mind
Allowing you to be more empathetic and have more compassion for others and yourself
Helping you cope with addictions
Helping you feel more satisfied with your relationships
Increasing your focus and concentration
Developing a better working memory
According to the Mental Health Foundation, mindfulness may also help with some physical health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease and chronic pain (ix).
Mindfulness isn’t at all complicated. You don’t have to be an expert at meditation or be religious or spiritual to practice it and reap the benefits either. Yet when you practice it regularly, it can be a powerful tool that can help improve your overall wellbeing.
Try this exercise, which is suitable for anyone, especially complete beginners. Just try to practice it for a few minutes every day. Try to focus on your breathing while you’re doing it, as it can help you become more aware of the present moment.
Find a warm, quiet place where you won't be disturbed or distracted. Get into a comfortable position – but avoid lying down (as you may end up falling asleep).
With your eyes either open or closed, start focusing on your breathing. Count your breaths, if you like, or repeat a soothing word every time you exhale. Try repeating the word 'calm', 'still', 'peace' or 'quiet', for instance.
Focus your attention on your body. Start with your feet and work your way right up to the top of your head, concentrating on each part and how it feels right now.
If other thoughts come into your head, bring your attention back to your breathing and let the thoughts gently flow back out again.
You can learn more mindfulness techniques from books and courses – the Mental health Foundation, for instance, runs its own online course called Be Mindful.
Many people also use mindfulness apps, which are really convenient because it means you can use them anywhere, and at any time. Here are a few examples of popular mindfulness apps that you can download and try today:
The Headspace app is a good place to start for anyone who hasn’t tried mindful meditation before. It includes several guided mindful meditations, including mini meditations lasting just two to three minutes. You can also track your progress and keep a check on how much time you spend meditating, and if you need help with falling asleep at night the app offers a variety of sleep sounds. There’s loads more to explore – visit the Apple App Store or the Google Play store for more details.
Available for both iPhone and Android devices, Calm offers a range of guided mindful meditations that range from three to 25 minutes in length. Other features include breathing exercises as well as soothing sounds and sleep stories to help you drift off. And while it’s ideal for beginners, it also has a lot to offer anyone who’s more advanced in their mindfulness practice.
The idea behind the Buddhify app is that you don’t have to sit quietly to do its meditations. In fact it offers a range of mindfulness exercises you can do while you’re going about your day-to-day activities, whether you’re at the office, in the gym or at home. There are sessions for complete beginners as well as those with more experience, offering practices lasting from three to 40 minutes. It’s available from the Apple App Store and Google Play store, though it currently costs a few pounds to download.
The Mindfulness App
As well as guided and non-guided mindful meditation sessions, this app offers a five-day introduction to mindfulness, which is useful for beginners. It also displays regular messages on your phone to help you stay grounded throughout the day, called Mindful Notices. The ability to save your favourite session to use when you’re offline is also very handy, especially if you don’t always have internet access. Available for iPhone and Android phones.
How to make mindfulness part of your daily routine
If you’ve been put off trying mindfulness because of its associations with meditation, there are lots of other ways you can practice it throughout the day. Here are a few examples to get you started:
Have you ever noticed how easy it is for your mind to wander while you’re doing everyday things such as brushing your teeth. That’s because we’re so used to doing such things, they become automatic, and we don’t have to think about what we’re doing. But the next time you brush your teeth try to pay attention to how the toothpaste tastes and feels in your mouth. Focus on the sound of your toothbrush moving against your teeth, notice how the bristles feel when they come into contact with your gums and how fresh your mouth feels when you’ve finished.
Do you watch TV while you’re eating? Perhaps you listen to the radio, read a newspaper, talk to the person you’re eating with or check your mobile phone. Then before you know it, your plate is empty and you’ve hardly noticed what you’ve been eating.
To eat more mindfully, switch off any distractions and avoid talking. Give all your attention to the food in front of you. How does it smell? What colour is it? What are the textures like? Is it hot or cold? How does the temperature feel in your mouth? Try to chew slowly and really savour your meal.
When you feel satisfied, put your knife and fork down. You don’t have to clear your plate.
Ordinary actions such as making and having a cup of tea can also be practiced mindfully. Start by noticing how the kettle gets heavier as you fill it with water. Listen to the sound of the water as it runs from the tap and how it sparkles in the light. Then after you’ve switched on the kettle, notice the sound the water makes as it bubbles and comes to the boil. Observe the boiling water pouring into your cup, noticing how the water changes colour when it comes into contact with the teabag. Watch how the steam escapes into the air.
Sit calmly and quietly to drink your tea and pay attention to how the cup feels in your hands. Take a sip and savour the taste – what flavours can you taste? How does the warmth of the liquid feel in your mouth?
If you find that when you go out for a walk your head is swimming with lots of different thoughts, try mindful walking.
First of all, try to really notice what’s going on around you. Think about the way the ground feels under your feet and how the wind or breeze feels on your face. Consider how you breathe as you walk – are you breathing more deeply or quickly than usual? Notice your surroundings – the natural environment, the buildings, the traffic, other people who you pass by and so on. What sounds can you hear? What does the sky look like?
Practicing mindfulness can help if you use public transport to travel to work or elsewhere (though don’t attempt this exercise if you’re driving a vehicle). Try to be conscious of the physical sensations in your body – are your muscles tense? If they are, try to relax them one by one. Look out of the window and take in the environment you’re travelling through. Notice the rhythm of the movement of your transport. If your transport is crowded and it’s making you feel uncomfortable, just try focusing on your breathing.
Natural support for stress
As well as practicing mindfulness you may want to try some nutritional supplements if you’re having difficulties coping with stress.
A good-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement may be a good place to start, as there’s some evidence they may help with stress-related symptoms (x). Several other supplements may be useful too, including the following:
This herb may also be useful in cases where stress causes sleep problems, for which it has a long history of traditional use (it has been used as a remedy for insomnia since as far back as the second century AD). Indeed some studies confirm that valerian may improve sleep quality (xi).
This traditional Ayurvedic herb is often used to help with tiredness, fatigue and stress. Indeed a small-scale study suggests ashwagandha may reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (xii), while another found 88 per cent of trial participants felt less anxious after taking it (xiii). Researchers elsewhere believe ashwagandha may help reduce stress and anxiety, as well as significantly improve sleep quality (xiv).
Rhodiola is a herb used traditionally throughout Europe for stress relief. Its roots contain many active ingredients, including rosavin and salidroside. There is some evidence it may help reduce anxiety and stress more effectively than a placebo (xv), with one study finding it effective in people with burnout symptoms (xvi).
Found almost exclusively in green, black, oolong and pekoe tea, theanine is a non-protein amino acid that’s thought to help your brain produce calming alpha waves. There is some evidence to suggest that taking a theanine supplement may help you feel more relaxed without making you drowsy (xvii).
Lavender aromatherapy oil
Lavender essential oil has a long-established tradition of helping you feel more relaxed and to sleep better. One study suggests lavender oil may be an effective natural way of treating the signs of anxiety (xviii), with another finding that it may be more effective for generalised anxiety disorder than a placebo (xix). Try having a warm bath with a drop or two of lavender oil before bedtime to help you sleep more peacefully.
If you’re feeling stressed out it can affect all areas of your life and wellbeing. But being more mindful whenever you can may help you feel calmer and see things from a different, more helpful, perspective. For more help with managing mental wellbeing issues (as well as a wide range of physical ailments), visit our health library.
Astin, J.A. Stress Reduction Through Mindfulness Meditation. Effects on Psychological Symptomatology, Sense of Control, and Spiritual Experiences. Psychother Psychosom. (1997). 66(2):97-106. Available online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9097338
Remmers, C., et al. . Why being mindful may have more benefits than you realize: Mindfulness improves both explicit and implicit mood regulation. Mindfulness. (2016). 7(4), 829–837. Available online: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-016-0520-1
Sharma, M., et al. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as a Stress Management Intervention for Healthy Individuals: A Systematic Review. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine. (2014). Vol 19(4) 271-286. Available online: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2156587214543143
van Wietmarschen, H., et al. Effects of mindfulness training on perceived stress, self-compassion, and self-reflection of primary care physicians: a mixed-methods study. BJGP Open. (2018 Dec). 2(4): bjgpopen18X101621. Available online: https://bjgpopen.org/content/2/4/bjgpopen18X101621
Available online: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/mindfulness
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mindfulness
Schlebusch, L., et al. A double-blind, placebo-controlled, double-centre study of the effects of an oral multivitamin-mineral combination on stress. S Afr Med J. (2000). 90:1216-1223. Harris, E., et al. The Effect of Multivitamin Supplementation on Mood and Stress in Healthy Older Men. Hum Psychopharmacol. (2011 Dec). 926(8):560-7. Available online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22095836
Vorbach, E.U., et al. Therapy for insomniacs: effectiveness and tolerance of valerian preparations [translated from German]. Psychopharmakotherapie. (1996). 3:109-115. Bent, S., et al. Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Med. (2006 Dec). 119(12):1005-12. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17145239
Chandrasekhar, K., et al. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. (2012 Jul). ,34(3):255-62. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573577
Anrade, C., et al. A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of the anxiolytic efficacy ff an ethanolic extract of withania somnifera. Indian J Psychiatry. (2000 Jul). ,42(3):295-301. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21407960
Salve, J., et al. Adaptogenic and Anxiolytic Effects of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Healthy Adults: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Clinical Study. Cureus. (2019 Dec 25). ,11(12):e6466 . Available online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32021735/0
Cropley, M., et al. The Effects of Rhodiola rosea L.Extract on Anxiety, Stress, Cognition and Other Mood Symptoms. Phytother Res. (2015 Dec). ,29(12):1934-9. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26502953
Kasper, S., et al. Multicenter, open-label, exploratory clinical trial with Rhodiola rosea extract in patients suffering from burnout symptoms. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. (2017). ,13: 889–898. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC53703803
Turkozu, D., et al. L-theanine, unique amino acid of tea, and its metabolism, health effects, and safety. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. (2017 May 24). ,57(8):1681-1687. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26192072
Woelk, H., et al. A multi-center, double-blind, randomised study of the Lavender oil preparation Silexan in comparison to Lorazepam for generalized anxiety disorder. Phytomedicine. (2010 Feb). ,17(2):94-9. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19962288
Kasper, S., et al. Lavender Oil Preparation Silexan Is Effective in Generalized Anxiety Disorder--A Randomized, Double-Blind Comparison to Placebo and Paroxetine. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. (2014 Jun). ,17(6):859-69. Available online: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24456909
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.