Stress Weakens the Immune System; Mindfulness Can Help
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed and stressed out during these uncertain times, but numerous studies have shown that stress weakens our immune system. The emotional reality of this moment in history is putting us at risk just when we most need to protect our health. Fortunately, promising research reveals that mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety.
Here are some tips that people at any level of mindfulness experience — from complete beginner to practiced expert — can use to reduce stress and protect essential immune function.
1. Relax with a mindfulness meditation: Start with 12 minutes twice a day — or 20 minutes twice a day if you can make time. Look for guided meditations on Insight Timer or the free Balanced Mind with Julie Potiker podcast on iTunes. Mix it up so that your mind is relaxing into the practice.
2. Make time for joy: Create a “joy list” and commit to choosing one or two things from it to do each day. To create the list, just let your mind wander for a few minutes with a pen and paper and watch the list grow. Don’t forget to add all life’s little joys, like a warm cup of tea or a bath. Then, when you pick something to bring joy to your day, do so with mindfulness; really feel the good feelings. Take a few breaths to absorb them and enrich the resulting positive mental state. This allows you to push the mental state to a neural trait, making a happy bridge in your brain and building your resilience.
3. Name it to tame it: Identify what you are feeling and where it is occurring in your body. For example, “I feel stressed; my neck is tightening up.” This practice allows you to use mindfulness to step into awareness and out of the intensity of the emotional state.
4. Ground yourself through the soles of your feet: Put your feet on the ground and send your attention down to the soles of your feet. How do they feel? Are you in socks and shoes? Barefoot? Cold or warm? Moist or dry? The act of doing this breaks the discursive loop of thoughts and emotions.
5. Practice mindfulness with your food: Be the observer and pay mindful attention to the way you prepare, serve, and eat your food. Slice and dice mindfully; put your fork to your mouth mindfully; taste and chew mindfully. It’s also lovely to consider the source of the particular food — where and how it was grown, the farmers who produced it, the distribution chain that allowed you to enjoy your meal. That naturally leads to a moment of gratitude.
When you notice your attention being diverted to worrying about what might happen, or ruminating on the latest upsetting news story, gently bring your attention back to the food. If you can keep your attention here, even for two or three minutes, you will be giving your brain a much needed break from stress — while simultaneously encouraging healthy eating practices!
Realizing that there is an effective, evidence-based approach to creating such meaningful stress reduction in our lives is a huge relief. It’s easy to believe that we are at the whim of life, especially on the hardest days, but this limiting mindset is now delightfully at risk of extinction thanks to the simple reality that mindfulness is so accessible.
The point is: we have options, even in moments when it feels like we don’t. Maybe that knowing can anchor us to hopefulness long enough to make new choices in our lives. Take heart in knowing that there is a path forward to a more manageable, peaceful way of living your days.