7 Simple Mindfulness Exercises That Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety - If you’ve got a pulse on the wellness world, you’ve likely heard about mindfulness
7 Simple Mindfulness Exercises That Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety – If you’ve got a pulse on the wellness world, you’ve likely heard about mindfulness exercises—a term that captures various techniques for bringing your attention to the present moment. You might have even tried your fair share of mindfulness meditations with the help of an app, a guided video session, or your smartphone’s timer. But let’s be real: Not everyone has the time (or desire) to pencil in a formal meditation practice.
That’s totally okay, because the beauty of mindfulness is that you can apply it in small ways throughout daily life. “Some [people] have the misconception that mindfulness means they need to sit cross-legged, eyes closed, and ready to commit to at least 10 to 15 minutes,” Hemisha Patel Urgola, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Princeton University and the founder of the Mindful Practice, says. However, it doesn’t need to be that at all (unless that’s your jam, of course); you can still experience the mental health benefits of mindfulness using super simple techniques, Dr. Urgola says.
Mindfulness is the practice of being present and aware; it means acknowledging whatever you’re feeling, sensing, and thinking in a calm and nonjudgmental way. According to Dr. Urgola, this mindset can be used in the moment to get through tough experiences, like running late to work or arguing with your partner, say. When practiced regularly, it can also spark long-term changes in how you connect with your thoughts, Dr. Urgola adds. Over time, this can improve your ability to navigate mental health struggles—namely stress, anxiety, and depression—she says.
While learning how to meditate is certainly one form of mindfulness practice, it’s not the only way to increase your present-moment awareness. But don’t take our word for it: We asked experts for quick, simple mindfulness exercises that can be added to just about any schedule. Below, you’ll get an overview of some of the benefits of mindfulness, as well as how to practice mindful awareness without meditation—whether you’re low on time or simply looking for some short and sweet relief.
What are some of the benefits of mindfulness?
If you’re new to mindfulness, the popularity of the practice can (understandably) make it hard to take seriously. That being said, the buzz surrounding it is pretty legit, as there’s a growing body of evidence supporting the benefits of mindfulness for mental health.
In a 2021 study published in the Frontiers in Psychology, for example, people who participated in a six-week mindfulness course reported lower stress levels.1 Similarly, a 2019 study in the same journal found that mindfulness meditation helped improve depression and anxiety symptoms, partly by reducing worry and rumination (thinking about something over and over and over again).2 And get this: A 2022 randomized clinical trial published in JAMA Psychiatry found mindfulness-based stress reduction to be just as effective as escitalopram, an SSRI that’s a first-line prescription medication for anxiety and depression.3 That’s not to say it’s the answer to everyone’s mental health issues but, more and more, mindfulness-based interventions have been shown to be a legitimate treatment option.
Considering that mindfulness can ease a stressed-out mind, it’s not surprising that it can also be helpful for insomnia and other sleep problems. (After all, insomnia has a close connection with anxiety and depression, both of which can make it hard to fall and stay asleep.1) In one 2021 study, researchers observed that mindfulness-based therapy improved sleep quality in older adults, and a 2018 meta-analysis published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine showed that mindfulness-based interventions can successfully treat insomnia.
How does mindfulness work?
The mental well-being effects of mindfulness can largely be traced back to the way it helps you navigate stressors, Cassandra Vieten, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of the University of California San Diego Center for Mindfulness, tells SELF. Dr. Urgola echoes this concept, noting that stress and anxiety are often related to the way you think about a situation rather than the situation itself. Specifically, she says, these mentally distressing states tend to occur when you overconnect and identify with negative thoughts, causing you to treat them as reality.
On a similar note, Dr. Vieten says that, for many people, most stress comes from thoughts about the past and worries about the future; it rarely stems from things that are happening right now. However, when you practice mindfulness, you’re training your brain to focus more on the present moment, she explains. Put another way, mindfulness allows you to disconnect from your thoughts about a particular situation and “just be,” says Dr. Urgola. “Our mind unclutters itself from all the noise for a little bit,” she adds. Sound like a welcome mental break? Below are seven basic, beginner-friendly ways to become more mindful.
Try these simple mindfulness exercises next time you need to chill out.
1. Three-minute breathing space
This quick exercise takes just three minutes to do, making it realistic for those busy, busy days. According to Dr. Vieten, it’s commonly used in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, a type of therapy that has been shown to improve symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.7
Here’s how to practice the “three-minute breathing space” technique, as described by Dr. Vieten:
- Set a timer for three minutes.
- Sit in a comfortable position if you can (though standing works too), ideally in a relatively calm environment (the bathroom counts), and close your eyes if you want. Notice what’s happening in your mind and body right now. Are you worrying about a problem or mistake? Do you feel warm or cold? Is there a distracting sound in your environment? Simply notice whatever you’re experiencing at the moment.
- Bring your full attention to your breath, focusing on the sensation of the air flowing in and out of your body.
- Expand your zone of awareness further out from your breathing so that it includes your whole body. You might notice your posture, your facial expression, or areas of muscle tension. Again, simply pay attention to whatever’s going on with your body.
2. Listening mindfulness
For Dr. Urgola, zeroing in on sounds is one of her favorite ways to implement mindful living. It involves focusing on a specific sound in your current environment—whether that’s on a bus, say, or in your kitchen—for several minutes. “Maybe it’s something obvious and loud, or maybe it’s something in the background,” says Dr. Urgola. Anything goes, really.
After you’ve identified a sound—distant traffic, the steady hum of an air conditioner, your neighbor’s too-loud TV—follow this easy mindful-listening technique:
- Close your eyes if it feels good. If not, find a spot in your space to softly gaze at (relax your eyes and don’t focus on anything specific).
- Listen deeply to that sound. Take note of its tone (Is it soft? Buzzy? Harsh?), rhythm (maybe it’s steady or irregular), and volume.
- Stay with the sound as best you can. If your mind wanders off, that’s okay; just acknowledge that and come back to the sound. You can even imagine your distracting thoughts drifting away from you on a balloon or floating down a stream on a leaf, suggests Dr. Urgola.
- End the exercise whenever you feel ready to stop.
Yes, you read that right. Hear us out: Instead of doing chores on autopilot, why not use them as opportunities to practice awareness? It’s a small, yet impactful way to check in with yourself, even as you do other tasks, Dr. Urgola says.
Here’s how to turn dishwashing into a quick mindfulness workout:
- As you wash the dishes, ask yourself: How warm or cold is the water? How does the sponge feel in my hand? What smells am I experiencing? What’s the texture of the dishes I’m touching?
- If your mind drifts off, again, that’s totally okay (and normal). “Your brain is doing what it has evolved to do: think,” says Dr. Urgola. Simply notice the drifting then come back to focusing on the dishes. (You can also do this in the shower, FYI).
4. Body scan
“The quick body scan consists of focusing on the different areas of your body one by one, from your feet to your head, and then back down to your feet,” Dr. Vieten explains. “This practice is particularly great when you’re feeling anxious, agitated, nervous, or scattered.”
To try this easy mindfulness exercise:
- Close your eyes or maintain a soft gaze (again, where your eyes are relaxed and you’re not focusing on anything in particular).
- Bring your attention to the bottom of your feet, followed by your toes, the tops of your feet, your heels, and your ankles. Notice what you’re sensing in each area—think tightness, coldness, a tingling sensation, or nothing at all—without judging it as good or bad.
- Move deliberately up your body—to your calves, knees, thighs, hips, etc.—and do the same thing: Notice the physical sensations in each section with curious attention.
- When you come to the top of your head, you can either stop or travel back down to your feet again, the same way you came.
Need a little more direction? You can check out the UCSD Center for Mindfulness website for guided body-scan recordings, Dr. Vietan says.
5. Four-seven-eight mindful breathing
The four-seven-eight mindfulness technique is a type of deep breathing exercise. It’s particularly handy for anxiety, as feeling anxious can deregulate our breathing patterns, says Dr. Urgola.8 “This technique can also be helpful if you’re having trouble sleeping,” she adds, since stress can prevent you from nodding off.