Stress is a modern mental bogeyman that keeps half of U.S. adults up at night, according to a recent survey from the American Psychological Association. And many people don’t do anything to try to fight it.
That’s bad news because stress takes a measurable physical toll on the body: it’s linked to a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, plus a general sense of malaise. But there’s fresh evidence that simple mindfulness practices–and no, that doesn’t have to mean sitting cross-legged in meditation–can help ease anxiety.
In a new study to be published in the journal Psychiatry Research, people with anxiety who took an eight-week course in which they learned several calming techniques displayed quantifiable changes in their bodies’ stress signals and stress hormones compared with those who took a stress-education course that didn’t include those techniques.
In recent years, a growing pile of research has emerged to support this kind of training, called mindfulness-based stress reduction. Studies have found that the consistent practice of paying attention to the present moment without judging it makes people better able to adapt to change and respond to stress.
The four strategies outlined below–all of which were taught to the participants in the new study–can help you build resilience to stress too.
CONDUCT A BODY SCAN
For many of us, work can be so mentally taxing that it’s possible to forget that we have an entire body attached to our head. The body-scan meditation is a chance to help you tune in to the tiny tingles, throbs and thrums that we often don’t even notice. It can last anywhere from one to 20 minutes, and it’s easy to do while lying in bed. Here’s how to do it: lie down or sit still in a chair with your eyes closed, and begin to take inventory of the sensations in each part of your body, starting at your toes and traveling up from there. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader of modern mindfulness research and professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says it’s a good way for people to release tension they don’t even realize they’re experiencing.
TRY GENTLE YOGA
Mindfulness isn’t all closed eyes and a statue-still seat. Stretching, too, can be meditation. “Mindful movement is also a way to pay attention,” says Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, lead author of the new study and an associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center. “What does it feel like when you raise your arm? Where in your body do you feel it?” The point isn’t to contort into a pretzel, Kabat-Zinn instructs, but to better understand the body’s limits and potential. Cycle through slow, gentle poses, like cradling a knee to your chest while lying on your back, or a simple cat-cow (pictured) on all fours. Before you start, set aside a few minutes to calm down and focus on your breath. And once you’re done, spend a few moments lying flat on your back with your muscles relaxed.
DO A BREATHING EXERCISE
Simply breathing while paying attention to the breath is the heart of any mindfulness practice. What’s more, it can be practiced almost anywhere, from a baby-filled plane to a busy subway platform to your desk. The goal isn’t to clear the mind–that’s basically impossible anyway–but to let thoughts pass like clouds without getting sucked into what they might mean. “Rather than identifying with a thought or getting caught up in it, the participant notices the thought and then says goodbye to it,” says Hoge. “That way, people can have a little bit more freedom in how to respond to internal stimuli like their thoughts.” To cultivate awareness of the breath, find a relaxed seat and notice–without thinking about it or trying to change it–how you naturally inhale and exhale. Build up to a 15-to-20-minute practice.
TAKE A WALKING MEDITATION
The most popular kind of exercise in the U.S. and many other parts of the world–walking–is also a good framework for practicing mindfulness. (Ideally, this should be done without the pressure of having to get anywhere on a particular schedule.) Find a quiet place inside or outdoors to take your stroll–a mall, a park, your neighborhood. While you walk, focus on each small, slow step: the lifting of one foot, the heel-first transfer of weight, the shift to the other. Every time your foot hits the ground, bring your attention to your breath and the sensations in your body. Many people find walking meditation more manageable than, say, sitting still in the dark, and it can also alleviate pain in the process. Try to practice mindful walking, at any pace, for 10 to 30 minutes.
This appears in the February 06, 2017 issue of TIME.
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