Practicing mindfulness can help to relieve the stresses of difficult times


Mindfulness, experts say, is an innate human capacity to pay attention to present-moment experiences with openness, curiosity and acceptance. And practicing mindfulness for even just a few minutes each day can help to relieve the stresses of our current difficult times and bring significant benefits to anyone’s life.

“It’s an intervention anyone can do,” says Diana Winston, PhD, director of mindfulness education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC). “It doesn’t matter what your background is, or your religion or your health condition.”

While the modern age is marked by extraordinar y advances in science and technology, such developments also have led to an increasing sense of pressure, complexity and information overload. “Individuals across the lifespan are feeling tremendous stress, which is contributing to a variety of mental and physical health problems and diseases,” Dr. Winston says.

Research has shown that mindfulness can help to lower blood pressure and boost the immune system, increase attention and focus, help with difficult mental states such as anxiety and depression and foster a sense of well-being.

Neither long stretches of time nor banishing all thought are required to successfully practice mindfulness, says Marvin Belzer, PhD, associate director of MARC and professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. “It’s not uncommon for people to have the idea that they’re supposed to be able to stop thinking and clear their mind of thoughts, just by deciding to do so,” Dr. Belzer says. “That’s a misconception. Even in the midst of thoughts, we can do things with our mind that are helpful.”

Nor is it necessary to spend hours folded in a lotus pose. Dr. Belzer often encourages beginners to start with just a minute or two of practice, which can be done seated, standing or lying down. Guided mindfulness meditation can be a good place to start. Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing on something real but not too complicated, such as the feeling of the breath moving in and out, sensations in the hands or feet or on ambient sounds.

“You can do it without magically stopping your thoughts — the thoughts may still be going on, and they may at times pull your attention away,” Dr. Belzer says. When that happens, Dr. Belzer says to “gently and non-judgmentally redirect your attention back to the sensation of sound or the feel of the breath moving in and out.”

To help facilitate the practice, MARC makes free guided meditations available on its website and its UCLA Mindful app.

Like starting any exercise program or learning a new skill, beginning a mindfulness practice requires commitment. One has to do the exercises to gain the benefits. “Regular practice allows us to connect with and deepen our awareness of the present moment, whatever it may bring,” Dr. Belzer says. “Anyone can do this. Just by being a conscious human being, you are mindful.”

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