Using Mindfulness to Manage Mental Health

January 28, 2021

Feeling scattered, overwhelmed, or tense? There’s a lot of that going around. And while there are no quick-fixes for perfect mental health, thankfully there plenty of strategies you can use to feel better and even out your emotions. They’re all rooted in mindfulness, a practice that brings your attention and awareness to the current moment, letting everything else fade. It’s all about noticing – without judging. Along with eating right and getting enough sleep and physical activity, mindfulness can go a long way to helping you improve your mental health.

“Being present allows us to be peaceful and joyful, and it’s possible to achieve by practicing mindfulness,” says Marc Kaplan, D.O., Sweetser Medical Director.  

Box breathing.
One of the simplest breathing techniques, box breathing is commonly used for rapid relief from stress and anxiety. “We all know how to breathe, but focusing on it and slowing your breath can keep you calm when you start to feel anxiety, anger, sadness or frustration,” says Kaplan.

Research shows regular breathing practices like this help keep the autonomic nervous system humming, easing anxiety, stress, depression, and more. What’s more, focusing on just breathing keeps your awareness moored right in the moment.

Like a box has four sides, box breathing has four parts: inhale, hold, exhale, hold. Give it a try and see how quickly your negative energy dissolves:

Sit in a comfortable chair that supports your back with your feet flat on the floor. Put your hands anywhere that feels comfortable. Close your eyes and mouth. Then:

  • Breath in through your nose as you slowly count to four.
  • Hold your breath as you slowly count to four. Keep your face and jaw relaxed.
  • Breath out through your nose as you slowly count to four.
  • Hold your breath as you slowly count to four.
  • Repeat 3 to 5 times.

Adjust the breath count if you need to. If four is too long, try a count of three. Set a goal of practicing daily, or try repeating it throughout the day to help you stay calm, focused, and centered. After you’ve practiced for a few weeks and feel like you’re up for a challenge, try bumping the count up to five.

Journaling helps you stay in the moment by focusing your attention on a simple, singular purpose. Studies show putting pen to paper is another powerful way to ease stress and bolster your mental health. It’s helpful for sorting through emotions, discovering where anxiety stems from, and identifying negative thoughts so you can replace them with positive ones.

Journaling can be done in many ways. To get started:   

  • Choose a form you like. Some prefer a notebook and pen; others prefer typing and keeping a digital record.
  • Make it a daily habit. To make it stick, pair journaling to another activity you do every day – like having a cup of coffee or getting ready for bed. Aim to write for 5 to 15 minutes.
  • Don’t judge. Let grammar and spelling go, and simply record your thoughts, how you’re feeling, or whatever comes to you. Use incomplete sentences, bullets, even sketches – anything goes.
  • Try this simple format: Write about one good positive thing that happened today, one negative thing, and one thing you’re looking forward to.

Mindful walking. Most of us are used to walking for exercise or to get from place to place. But walking can also be a great way to shed distraction and hold your awareness, like a moving form of meditation. Like other mindfulness tactics, you can practice mindful walking daily, or turn to it whenever you need to find some peace.

  • Leave your phone behind – or at least put it on silent and stow it in your pocket.
  • Set out for 10 or 15 minutes.
  • Experiment with different ways to stay in the moment.
    • Count steps from 1 to 10, and then restart at 1.
    • Zero in on how your feet land, roll through, and push off.
    • Repeat a mantra, like “I am here,” “I am calm,” “let it go,” or “inhale, exhale.”
    • Focus on your surroundings, first taking in the sights, then being aware of any sensations you feel (like a breeze on your face), then on what you smell.
  • If your mind shifts from the here and now to chores, tasks, or events, notice the shift. Then bring your focus back to walking – without judgment.

You can practice mindful walking inside, too, if you have a corridor or a large room where you can take 10 or so steps, pause, turn and repeat.

Give one or more of these approaches a try. “With practice, you’ll find an inner stillness that will allow you to better handle challenges,” says Kaplan. And consider exploring Sweetser’s free, confidential online wellness tool – myStrength for more everyday ways to stay mindful and manage anxiety.