People are experiencing significantly more stress, anxiety and depression since lockdown began, according to a study led by the University of Nottingham and King’s College London.
57 per cent of people in the study reported symptoms of anxiety – with 26 per cent of them reaching the threshold at which someone would qualify for high intensity psychological support from the NHS.
With many people seeking ways to relieve stress and create a moment of calm for themselves, the interest in mindfulness techniques has rapidly grown. This embracement of holistic wellbeing has led to meditation and breathwork techniques becoming almost as mainstream as yoga. And the Headspace app alone has seen an increase of six million members since last February.
Concentration-focused meditation and breath awareness provides “an anchor for the present moment,” explains Dr Jud Brewer, associate professor at Brown University and executive medical director at Sharecare.
“It feels like a boat out at sea. If that boat doesn't have an anchor it gets blown by the wind, it gets entrenched with the current. And that's what our minds are constantly doing – we're like boats without anchors,” he explains.
So what’s the difference between mindfulness, meditation and relaxation?
The core physiological teachings of mindfulness are based on Buddhist psychology, explains Dr Jud. And meditation fits within the larger circle of mindfulness.
Meditation enables us to focus on our thought patterns – and to become aware of how unhelpful our old habits are, he adds. And with this awareness eventually comes a sense of calm and relaxation, says Dr Jud, because relaxation is a physiological response that people can maintain by not getting “caught up in our thoughts, worries or fears.”
Mindfulness techniques have been “proven to help people reduce stress and manage difficult emotions,” explains Eve Lewis Prieto, Director of Meditation at Headspace. So “by becoming more aware of how stress, anxiety or worry appears in our thoughts and bodily sensations we can observe them and accept these are normal and understandable experiences,” she adds.
Breath awareness, sometimes referred to as breathwork or possibly even diaphragm breathing, is a form of mindfulness that’s becoming particularly popular as a way to relieve stress.
Spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that following our in-breath and out-breath brings us back to the present moment, and away from our stresses. With a six-month free trial of Fitbit Premium that accompanies every Fitbit Sense (for new users only), you’ll get access to lots of stress-busting audio mindfulness content, such as guided breathing, helping you find your Zen a little more easily.
Plus for all Fitbit users, there is a mindfulness tile in the Fitbit app that lets you set a weekly mindfulness goal and daily reminders to complete a mindful practice, log your mood after a mindfulness session, and help you practice meditation.
The benefits of breathing optimally
“The practice of breathwork is, simply put, breathing exercises that allow you to manipulate the rhythm, depth and rate of your breath with intention and purpose,” says Rebecca Dennis, author and founder of Breathing Tree.
It stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, she adds, “which allows your body to rest and digest, slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure and respiratory rate and divert blood supply towards the digestive and reproductive systems.”
Although we’re often unable to change what’s happening around us, becoming aware of the way we breathe allows us to remain in control of our reaction to those situations,” says Rebecca.
Breathing our way to happiness
As several factors can affect your breathing rate, the definition of optimal breathing varies for everyone. But “the easiest place to begin with breathwork is to become aware of your natural breathing habits,” says Richie Bostock, founder of The Breath Guy.
Chronically stressed and anxious people’s breathing patterns can result in neck, shoulder and back pain, he adds, because they’re permanently using “secondary breathing muscles” which are only intended for use after extreme energy expenditure. Taking time each day to “breathe with purpose” can reduce stress and anxiety, says Richie.
Using wearable technology like the Fitbit Sense, it’s easy to generate reminders to spend two minutes being mindful at various times throughout the day. Fitbit’s ‘Relax’ guided breathing sessions in particular help to improve wellbeing and find moments of calm, with a personalised on-wrist breath-focused session, based on the wearer’s heart rate. And all without the need for meditation cushions or harem pants.
It is all powered by your personal data too. The Sense’s on-device EDA (electrodermal activity) sensor can actually detect tiny electrical changes on your skin, which may indicate how your body is responding to stress. By placing your palm on the face of the watch, the EDA Scan app detects your responses during a mindfulness session. Typically, the more anxious you are, the more EDA responses you’ll see – and the more you could benefit from a good breathwork session.
Taking just two minutes on regular EDA sessions on your Sense and tracking how your responses look over time can help improve your mental and physical wellbeing, as well as build a mindfulness practice.
Achieve your holistic health goals
The past year has been a real rollercoaster, with many of us feeling more stressed as we juggle working from home with childcare and self-care. But there have also been some positives. We’ve learned some valuable lessons about how resilient we really are, and about how we de-stress – and that’s where tracking our own health data has come into its own.
Fitbit Sense can help you connect the dots between activity, sleep, nutrition and stress management, with tips on how to understand your body better and ultimately help improve your overall health and wellbeing.
For more information, visit Fitbit.com