Your brain on mindfulness: Part 2
Strategies for changing your response to stress.
How many times a day do you come across the dreadful word, “stress?” Whether it is the beginning of a school year, the end of an election, or the Holiday season, we all encounter stress in our environment. Sometimes we face stress in a more personal matter as we navigate finances, relationships, or any type of change. Regardless of who we are, the word stress is deep in our vocabulary. Though we all experience stress, Michigan State University Extension recognizes there is a need to educate ourselves on the best practices for handling stress.
Through a more formal structure, you can learn strategies for handling stress by signing up for MSU Extension’s “RELAX: Alternatives to Anger,” series, or a “Stress Less With Mindfulness,” series. Many mindfulness lessons are based off of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.” Kabat-Zinn is a pioneer in the field of mindfulness, leading it into mainstream American culture. The foundation lies in having an awareness of the connections between our minds and our bodies. Here are some key components you can practice right now, wherever you are, to begin cultivating this personal awareness and changing your brains response to stress:
Visualize a square in your mind, and close your eyes if you are comfortable. Breathe in deep to a count of four while visually tracing the top side of the square, moving from left to right. Hold your breath for a count of four while visually tracing down the right side of the square. Slowly breathe out for a count of four while visually tracing the bottom side of the square, moving from right to left. Then sit and relax while you mentally trace up the left side of the square, completing a full cycle of Square Breathing. Continue this cycle of breathing until you feel your body relax, your heart rate slow down, and your mind clear.
This practice is about your mental focus and awareness of any movement you are doing. One option, is to shrug your shoulders up to your ears while breathing in deeply to a slow count of four. Then lower your shoulders down while breathing out to a slow count of four. Continue this exercise and notice how your shoulders feel. Pay attention to any tightness, tingling sensations, or relaxation that you may discover. More mindful movement can be explored here.
Focus in on your five senses and what you are experiencing right now. Identify five things you are seeing, four things you are touching, three things you are hearing, two things you are smelling, and one thing you are tasting. Explore what your five senses are experiencing deeper; are the things you are seeing bright or colorful? Is your body touching something cold or soft? How loud are the sounds you are hearing? Are the smells pleasant or foul? Is the taste something sweet, sour, or neutral?
All of these practices are exercise for our brain, with the result of a stronger mind. When we use these mindful activities they physically strengthen two structures in our brain, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus (learn more at part 1). Practice these exercises when you are not stressed, and they will become habitual and powerful resources for you when in the midst of a stressful storm.
Certified Yoga Teacher and Craniosacral therapist Lindsey Wise guides us through mindfulness with this quote,
“The goal of mindfulness is not to reduce stress, or cultivate well-being, or change anything…those are simple by products. Mindfulness is about seeing things as they really are. To witness this moment and accept it fully for what it really is. Acknowledging all aspects of what is right here, right now, and you awaken more fully to the present moment.”