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Give yourself the gift of mindfulness to ease angst during the holidays and all year round

Mindfulness, meditation proven to help manage anxiety

A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and meditation can be effective ways to reduce anxiety symptoms. As Penn State College of Medicine and Penn State Health prepare to launch the next MBSR course in January 2023, course instructor Timothy Riley, MD, shares practical tips on how to incorporate mindfulness into your day-to-day life during the holiday season and beyond.

What does “mindfulness” mean exactly?

Tuning in to what’s happening right now in your body, mind, and heart – and not judging or evaluating it, just letting it be. It’s choosing to be fully present in this moment, exactly as it is, with kindness toward yourself and others. When we pay attention in this particular way, we have the opportunity to stop our automatic scripts and choose how to respond to the moment. In doing so, we may short-circuit habits that are no longer helpful, treat ourselves and our loved ones with more kindness and grace, and act based on what matters most to us.

What are some of the techniques in learning how to be more mindful? (I.e., how can we teach ourselves mindfulness?)

We can be mindful anywhere, any time. Practicing mindfulness helps us to bring it online when we need it most. We can practice by choosing to pay attention to the sensations in our bodies with gentle kindness throughout the day. For example, feeling the soles of the feet when walking, or the pressure on the fingertips as we turn a doorknob. We can also tune into the sensations of breathing at any moment. Finally, taking a few minutes of day of dedicated practice – being still and mindfully observing the breath, doing some gentle stretches, or slowly pacing as we tune into sensations in the feet – can be very supportive.

Why is it important to learn how to be more mindful? What are some of the benefits?

Many studies have shown that mindfulness is good for humans. It reduces stress and burnout. It improves depression and anxiety. The recent study in JAMA Psychiatry showed that the same eight-week course we offer here at Penn State Health is just as potent as Lexapro, a common antidepressant, for treating anxiety. Mindfulness has been shown to help people coping with chronic pain or other chronic conditions, and can even lower blood pressure. For healthy people, mindfulness improves quality of life. It allows us to handle challenges with greater ease, recover more quickly when we get swept away by a tough situation, and savor the good times more deeply.

What are some of the daily applications of mindfulness? In other words, how can we incorporate mindfulness into our daily lives to help reduce stress and anxiety?

  • Before your first sip of coffee in the morning, pause. Feel your feet. Feel the temperature of the cup in your hand. Notice the aroma. Get curious regarding the flavor and sensations as you first taste it. Savor it.
  • As you walk from your car to your workplace (or vice versa), notice how your body feels. Tune in to the sensations of your feet on the ground. Notice the temperature of your body. If it’s cold and you’re tensing up, check if there’s any tension that can be released. Open to what is here to be seen and heard. Take it all in, like you’re seeing and hearing it for the first time.
  • Before sending an email, pause. Take a breath, feel the air moving. Bring the recipients of the email to mind, and, as best you can, wish them well. Review the email, asking yourself, “What matters most here?” When you are content that the email matches with your intention, click send.
  • Pause before responding while speaking with a colleague or loved one. Feel your feet or your breath. If you’re having a strong mental or emotional reaction, try to let it be without allowing it to drive the bus. Tune in, as best you can, to what matters most to you and to the other person. Speak your truth from the heart.

How did you become involved in the study/practice of mindfulness and how has this practice helped you in your personal experience?

I spent seven years practicing family medicine in underserved, under-resourced communities and experienced burnout first hand. Mindfulness has helped me step back from unhealthy habits I was bringing to my clinical work (like trying to “fix” people) and approach the care of my patients from a more centered, compassionate space. I feel like I have tools I can use to effectively process difficult feelings and situations. Most importantly, I have learned how to be kind to myself, which then allows me to be kind to others.

MBSR winter Monday sessions begin Jan. 23, 2023

Being mindful begins right where you are. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, is an eight-week guided course for bringing healthy choices to life, being offered to the community through Penn State Health and Penn State College of Medicine.

This series will run Mondays from Jan. 30 to March 20, 2023, via Zoom.

  • Orientation: 6 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 23, 2023
  • Sessions: 6 to 8:30 p.m. Mondays, Jan. 30 to March 20, 2023
  • Retreat: 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, March 11, 2023

Click here to register.

Riley’s fellow MBSR instructors Holly Socolow, MHS, Michelle “Shelly” Ungemach, MSW, LSW, and Elizabeth Bhagat provided input on his Q&A responses. Learn more about the instructors here.

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