The world’s a pretty crazy place right now. Self-care is more important than ever, but how the heck do you find time for it? Mindfulness exercises are a great way to slow down and focus on the present moment.
They’ll give you a little slice of Zen in an otherwise hectic life.
Can mindfulness exercises help depression and anxiety?
Science says yes. Loads of well-designed research has shown that mindfulness based therapy (MBT) has a positive impact on depression and anxiety.
Take this meta-analysis from 2013, which analyzed 209 studies. MBT even held up against other treatments like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).
Mindfulness seems to dial down the body’s response to stress. Chronic stress can lead to a whole host of mental and physical problems.
(Also, you just binge-watched 6 episodes of “Nailed It” back to back. You’ve got the time.)
From meditations to writing exercises, there’s loads of ways to inject a bit of mindfulness into your day. You can even get the kids involved.
So come, young Padawan, while we show you the ways of mindfulness.
Don’t hate, elevate. Whether it’s in quiet mediation or running through the park, the world is your oyster.
1. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… Pay attention to your senses
Our senses are powerful tools to help us interpret the world around us. But we’re often not paying very much attention to them.
Practice honing your senses with this quick exercise. You can try it in almost any situation:
- Notice five things that you can see. Is it a bird, or a plane? Nope, it’s just Dad mowing the lawn.
- Notice four things that you can feel. Not other people though. That’s definitely not OK.
- Notice three things you can hear. Maybe tell your brother to turn off that Mayhem record first…
- Notice two things you can smell. Yep, even farts. They have feelings, too, y’know? (Okay, they don’t, but that’s a Pixar movie we’re 100 percent here for).
- Notice one thing you can taste. You didn’t have pickles again for lunch, did you?
2. Focus on living in the moment
“All you have is this moment. Don’t let it slip away.” Shout outs to Insta-philosophers for all the fluffy nonsense your brain can handle. Okay, it’s a bit cliché. But look, there’s actually something to this, even if it does make your eyes roll harder than Elliot Page in “Whip It.”
Your fast-paced life could be giving you burnout. Learning to live in the present will help you to slow down and smell the roses.
Try this mindful review exercise to help get some perspective before hitting the ol’ dusty trail:
- Think back to the start of the day. Maybe you kicked it off with a calming breathing exercise. Or perhaps you just ate some cereal and listened to T-Swizzle. That’s cool, too.
- Go through the day in your mind, replaying any particularly memorable events. Note how they made you feel.
- It might be helpful to write everything down in a journal, but you don’t have to.
Give yourself a chance to be mindful before the day finishes. Even just thinking about the day gone by, noting the emotions in particular, can help you calm down, stay in the moment, and take stock.
3. Self-acceptance exercise
If you find that you’re always beating yourself up, it’s probably time for some self-love.
Everyone has parts of themselves that they don’t like. But remember, you’re frickin’ awesome just the way you are. Eff the haters.
Try out this writing exercise to work on your self-compassion:
- Think of a part of you that makes you feel inadequate.
- Now think of an imaginary friend who really loves the heck out of you. Someone who’s got your back 100 percent. Your absolute bezzie. Your Bing Bong.
- Write a letter to yourself from that friend. Would they be so unkind about this part of you?
- Focus on how accepting and loving this awesome friend would be.
- Feel the compassion wash over you. Enjoy it.
4. Breathing exercises
Breathing exercises can help you inject some calm into your body. This Sama Vritti (or “equal breathing”) exercise is great before bed. It’s the same vibe as counting sheep, but you can’t summon sheep from your lungs (we hope):
- Get comfy. You can do this seated or lying down, and with your eyes open or closed.
- Inhale and exhale through your nose. This will give a little more resistance to your breathing, making it easier to keep focus.
- Inhale for 4 counts. 1, 2, 3, 4, aaaaand hold…
- Exhale for 4 counts. …aaaaand 1, 2, 3, 4.
- Ramp up. Try moving up to 6 or 8 counts once you’ve got the hang of it.
- Repeat. Do this as many times as you like until you’re asleep and/or chill AF.
You could also try “pursed lip breathing” to help you relieve stress or anxiety during the day:
- Relax. Particularly your neck and shoulder muscles.
- Inhale for 2 counts. Don’t breathe deeply, just follow your normal breathing pattern.
- Pucker up, gurrl. “Purse” your lips, like you’re going to whistle, gently blow out a candle, or pose for a selfie.
- Slowly exhale through pursed lips. Do this for 4 counts.
You can try this last exercise 4 to 5 times a day or whenever you’re feeling a bit tense.
5. Body scan meditation
We’re often so busy fighting fires (metaphorically speaking) that we become detached from how our bodies actually feel.
This meditation exercise is great for checking in. It can help you become more aware of stress triggers and avoid burnout. Here’s how to do it:
- Find a quiet place. If you work in an office, find an empty conference room or go sit in your car.
- Relax and take a few deep breaths.
- Start by focusing on one part of your body — your head, your toes, whatever enters your brain first. Become aware of any aches, pains, tingles, or sensations, and take the time to really feel them. Blot out your environment entirely — your body is the environment now.
- If your attention starts to waver, don’t worry — let it. Observe your thoughts until they pass, then return your attention to the body part.
- Once you’ve really checked in with how that body part feels, slowly release your attention from it with a breath. Then, as you breathe in again, bring the same level of attention to the next body part along. So if you started with your head and neck, move to your shoulders.
- Repeat this across your whole body, bit by bit.
- Once you’ve moved across the whole body in small stages, let your awareness move out to the whole body as one unit. Note any sensations, such as warmth or discomfort.
- Breathe into the sensations and stay present. Remember, you’re not trying to change anything — just observe.
- Take as long as you need to scan your entire body. Then, slowly return your attention to the world around you.
6. Seated meditation
You only need 5 minutes to reap the benefits of this simple seated meditation:
- Find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed. Sitting cross legged or in a chair is just fine.
- Take 3 deep breaths and notice how your body feels. Are you noticing any new sensations?
- Focus on your breath. Put a hand on your stomach if this helps you feel the breathing motion.
- Your mind is probably going to wander at some point. But don’t worry — minds will do that. Gently nudge your focus back to your breath and keep going.
- Continue for 5 to 20 minutes, depending on how much time/patience you have.
You can always try an app like Headspace or Calm. These provide guided mindfulness meditations to help keep you focused.
Why not incorporate different breathing exercises into your routine for double relaxation?
7. Walking meditation
You can introduce the concept of mindfulness into your daily exercise too. You don’t always have to be sitting down cross-legged.
Here’s how to add some mindfulness into your walking or running:
- Set your intention before starting. How do you want to feel today?
- Focus on the feeling of your body moving. Notice the breeze against your skin or the feeling of your feet on different textures of ground.
- Be aware of different smells around you. Be it fresh meadow flowers or a greasy fried-chicken joint, listen to what your nostrils are telling you.
- Try to ignore thoughts. “Am I going fast enough?” won’t cut it for a mindful walk. It’s all about being present in the moment and avoiding distractions.
You can think of meditation as a training ground. You’re removing yourself from other activities to train yourself in being mindful. With this exercise, you’re taking whatever you’ve learned from that meditation training and applying it to walking or running.
Mindfulness may also help you manage pain if you’re recovering from an injury.
A study in 2020 showed that mindfulness exercises coupled with physical therapies significantly reduced pain in recreational female runners recovering from patellofemoral pain (PFP).
Kids might not totally get mindfulness. But that doesn’t mean they have to miss out on being mindful. You can make mindfulness more accessible by introducing a little fun into the exercises.
With a little less sitting around and a little more pizazz, you’ll have your little baby Buddhas Zenning all the way out in no time.
So get your “creative parenting” hat on, and let’s have a look at some mindfulness exercises for the kids.
1. Infant massage
Although the concept of mindfulness is probably lost on these squishy little cutie pies, infants as young as 6 to 8 weeks old can recognize the voice of their parents.
Infant massage could be a good way to introduce a mindfulness practice with your baby. It’s also a cool bonding exercise for new parents.
According to a 2018 study, massage-based bedtime routines reduced child/mother night wakings and improved maternal sleep quality. Finally!
It’s definitely worth a try, if only for an extra 10-minutes in bed.
- Wait until about 45 minutes after feeding. You don’t want their dinner regurgitated all over your sweater. (We checked, and there’s no exercise for mindfulness vomiting.)
- Apply gentle pressure and begin massaging. Start on the stomach and work outwards, spending about 1 minute on each area.
- Take your time, and don’t rush. Give bébé your full attention, and be in the moment.
- Massage for around 5 to 10 minutes in total.
2. Mind/body awareness
Once the little ones start talking (and let’s be honest, never stop), you can start introducing exercises to help them get in touch with their feelings.
These activities encourage toddlers and preschoolers to think about how they’re feeling from head to toe. The first exercise is similar to the body scanning exercise, but for smaller bodies. The rest can help them become more aware of their feelings.
Try these out in the morning. They can help your kid stay mindful as the day goes on.
- A mini body scan. Starting at the top of the head, ask them to go through each area one by one and tell you how it feels. Encourage them to say more than just “good” or “bad.” Does it tickle? Sting? Does it feel warm or cold?
- Checking in. If you face a tantrum in the coming days, ask them to check in with their body and mind. Talk about their pains, feelings, and anxieties. “What are you sad about?” “What are you angry about?”
- Breathing. Try some simple breathing exercises if they’re feeling tense or anxious. “Okay, breathe in with me… 1, 2, 3… now hold… 1, 2, 3… aaaand let it all go like a balloon!”
3. Mindful listening
It’s not like your little darling Oliver is going to understand the connection between soothing sounds and mindfulness. (He might hate you for naming him after a fictitious 19th century orphan though. But that’s your problem.)
Regardless, he can still feel the benefit from this practice by using his senses. It’s more about making this exercise “experiential,” than totally abstract. Here’s how:
- Pick a spot for taking a walk outside in nature. Let your kid help choose the spot so they feel more involved in the activity.
- Ask them to focus on the sounds they hear. Maybe it’s the birds singing in the trees, or the wind gently blowing the leaves.
- It’s all about focusing on their environment and being at one with their surroundings.
- Get them to remember their favorite sounds. When you get back home you can ask them to write a story based around them or have your kid try to imitate the sounds.
4. Guided imagery
Meditating is hard for kids. Their little brains are super active, and it can be hard to teach them how to slow down.
Using guided imagery exercises can give kids something to focus on. It’s also a little easier than traditional meditation:
- Find a comfy, cozy space for the exercise.
- Start with some deep breaths to get your kid (or kids) to relax.
- Ask them to imagine a place where they feel happy and safe. It could be somewhere you’ve been, or somewhere completely made up. It’s totally up to your kid. (Just a heads up, you might be spending the next few minutes at the Avenger Tower.)
- Now it’s time for the deets. What do they see, hear and smell in this awesome little slice of heaven? (Oh, the Hulk’s *right* there? How does he smell?)
- Ask them how their body feels. Maybe they can feel the warm sun on their face or the sand in between their toes.
- Get them to stay in their safe place for as long as possible while they practice being super chill.
- Slowly, coax your kid back out of the space, and check in with them. How do they feel now? Relaxed? Protected?
Buddhists have been enjoying the benefits of meditation for thousands of years. But what does modern science have to say about this ancient practice?
A 2019 review found that mindfulness meditation could help with depression, anxiety, pain, and substance misuse.
The researchers noted that in some cases, well designed mindfulness-meditation-based interventions (MMBIs) can be as effective as more conventional treatments.
A 2019 study also noted that mindfulness-based meditation could have a positive impact on depression symptoms.
The study authors noted that folks who practiced MMBIs may feel the positive effects for 6 months or longer. But there was less evidence for improvements in anxiety disorders (even though the researchers supported using MMBIs alongside conventional anxiety treatment).
It’s important to note that these studies mostly focus on mindfulness in psychological settings. More info is needed on how useful mindfulness meditation is for the general public.
But with such promising research, it’s definitely worth a try. And if it feels good and won’t hurt you, keep doing it!
When to see a doctor about depression and anxiety
Over 17 million people in the U.S. live with depression. Everyone experiences it differently.
Symptoms of depression can vary person to person but might include:
If you’re worried you might have depression then it’s best to speak with your doctor. They can provide you with the help and support you need.
Mindfulness exercises are a great way to get some headspace if you’re living a hectic lifestyle. They’ll help you feel more relaxed and in tune with your body.
The kids might even pick up a useful mental tool or two. Emotional intelligence is so important.
With so many different ideas to try, finding the right exercise could be as easy as taking a deep breath and counting to 1… 2… 3. 🧘