Not so long ago, a large group of Boston-area moms gathered in a field to shout out their stress, anxiety, and frustration. And honestly, who hasn’t felt the irresistible urge to scream?
Kiz Adams is the wellness coordinator at the University of Georgia and she says she’s seen a lot of burnout and stress among her friends and colleagues. But stress is not a normal part of life, and we need to be aware of the health risks that often accompany chronic stress.
The National Council of Mental Wellbeing has conducted numerous studies on this topic and found that prior to the pandemic, 1 in 5 adults were diagnosed with symptoms associated with mental illness. Since the start of the pandemic, this statistic has risen to 1 in 3 adults – the most prevalent concerns are anxiety and depression. Taking a vacation, relaxing with an adult beverage, and spending time with family can all be ways people try to relieve stress, but Adams is a proponent of mindfulness through meditation. Mindfulness is a buzzword that has been thrown around freely in recent years, but what does it mean to be mindful?
Adams says mindfulness means purposefully paying attention in the moment without judgment. A person can’t be accidentally conscious, that’s something you have to strive for. However, it also means that it is a skill that can be practiced. In turn, meditation is the tool we use to practice mindfulness. Meditation is simply focusing on something in the present moment and often what people focus on is the breath because, as Adams points out, your breath is always in the present.
So all I have to do is breathe properly and the stress and anxiety go away? Can it really be that simple? Physiology says, well yes.
The vagus nerve runs through the diaphragm, and abdominal breathing can engage this nerve, which can actually help calm you down in a time of stress.
Breathing from your diaphragm, or belly breathing, is as simple as thinking about having a ball in your chest. On an inhale, you try to inflate that balloon, and on an exhale, you deflate your balloon, or diaphragm.
Meditation and abdominal breathing are just tools to help you learn to recognize your emotions and judgments and manage your response to these stimuli rather than reacting to them in unhealthy or unhelpful ways.
Adams says that if every day when you open your inbox you have a stress reaction, you’re just teaching your brain that email equals stress. But meditation is a way to help realign your thinking so that when you open your inbox, instead of a stress response, you can think, “email is not an emergency. .. I can answer one email at a time and stop whenever I want… email is not stressful.”
And meditation, mindfulness – these are not just for adults. Adams says abdominal breathing — inflating the “balloon” of your diaphragm — is great for kids. Another tactic parents can teach children to help calm them down in the moment is the five-finger meditation in which the child raises one hand and traces their fingers while breathing. For example, start from the outside of the little finger and inhale while tracing the outside of the finger, then exhale while tracing the inside of the little finger. The child will then work their way around the fingers to the thumb. The point is that it helps the child slow down and breathe.
Maybe we can all benefit from learning to slow down and breathe.