Deep breath in. Hold it for a second. Deep breath out. Focus on how that calming breath makes you feel.
Better already? Getting started with mindfulness meditation is as easy as that, says Dr. Jonathan Fisher, a Novant Health cardiologist who has worked to incorporate mindfulness into his daily life for the past 10 years.
The term “mindfulness” gets used a lot these days and in a lot of different contexts. In this case, we’re talking about simply taking a few seconds to disengage and focus on the moment to relax the mind and body, and manage stress.
Fisher’s motivation was trying to work through the grief he felt after the loss of a loved one. But he says we all can use mindfulness to celebrate getting through a tough year (so long, 2020!) – and help us feel connected and content as we face new challenges in the coming year.
The science is behind him: The American Heart Association first endorsed meditation in 2017 as a complement to traditional treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown practicing mindfulness and meditation can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve sleep, which is important for cardiovascular and overall health.
Let’s take it outside
Spending just five minutes in nature each day can calm your stress hormones. So having a seat beside a tree, closing your eyes and focusing on breathing deeply in and out can change your outlook and calm your stress hormones.
Or try walking meditation: Focus on your footsteps first, and then take note of your surroundings – the color of the trees, the sound of birdsong, anything that you find enjoyable. Focusing on the positive is important for reaping the health benefits of this practice.
Think about it a minute
Can’t get outside? Try sitting quietly inside, breathing deeply and visualizing nature. Fisher said the mind often can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality, so you can still create physical changes in your body by visualizing something positive. (Pro tip: When I want to lower my heart rate, I think about a mountain stream I visited with my family one summer. It works every time.)
Make a connection
Humans need physical connection, which is difficult or impossible to achieve during a global pandemic. But you can connect and feel part of your larger community via meditation. This type of meditation is called “loving-kindness practice.” If you’re rolling your eyes at this point, don’t be put off by the name, Fisher said.
“We can re-create experiences of love and connection, even without physically being with another person, and the chemical changes are the same,” Fisher explained. “When we practice this, we experience increased levels of serotonin, the happiness hormone; of oxytocin, the cuddle hormone; and decreased levels of cortisol and adrenaline the stress hormones.”
- You can do it for a minute or five minutes.
- Sit in a comfortable chair, close your eyes and bring to mind someone who loves you and accepts you as you are.
- Imagine looking into their eyes and notice the feeling of being accepted and loved. Does it make you feel warm? Does your breathing start to slow? Experience that for a moment.
- Then practice sending that person well wishes: May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with peace and ease.
- Repeat for other individual loved ones, groups of loved ones, the people in your neighborhood, the front-line health care workers in your city, and so on. Feel the connection.
“This is not something that’s pie-in-the-sky, lovey-dovey,” he said. “There is now extensive research looking at people who do this practice and showing meaningful changes in their levels of anxiety, depression and even a sense of well-being, happiness and connection.”
No matter the mindfulness practice you choose, Fisher said, it’s important to take the time for yourself. When it all seems too much, practicing a little bit of mindfulness and appreciation for just one thing can feel like a victory.