How can I use mindfulness to help manage stress in my busy life?

Mindfulness is about cultivating our ability to be present to what is happening in the here and now. It is about bringing our attention into the present moment. Being aware of what is happening in our bodies, minds and immediately around us and without judgment.

We can all be mindful, the challenge is how to stay mindful and that is much more difficult when we are really busy. One of the things that happens when we are busy is that we get into ‘doing mode’ where our life can look like one long ‘to do’ list as we move from one urgent task to another. ‘Doing mode’ is great for getting things done, we can achieve a lot, but if we spend too much time in doing mode we can tend to live in our heads rather than the moment  and this can lead to stress, anxiety and leave us feeling exhausted. 

When this happens, or preferably, even before, we need to start shifting from ‘doing mode’ into ‘being mode’. Being mode is when you are not trying to achieve anything, when you are not focusing on getting something done quickly or focusing on the end result. A great practice for helping you back into ‘being mode’ is the 3 Minute Breathing Space which can be practiced anytime. It is a good idea to try to make it part of your every-day routine, practicing it 2 or 3 times a day. It is also a particularly useful practice when you feel yourself getting stressed and your thoughts are about to spiral out of control. The practice was developed by Jon Kabat Zinn author of ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ who has been the leading practitioner in the use of mindfulness in managing stress. It is the quickest and easiest meditation to do; the challenge is remembering to do it.


Step 1: Becoming aware

Whether sitting or standing try to make your posture upright. If possible, close your eyes. Then bring your awareness to your inner experience and acknowledge it, asking what is my experience right now?

What thoughts are going through my mind?  See if you can notice your thoughts without getting caught up in them.

What feelings are here? Turn towards any sense of discomfort or unpleasant feelings, acknowledging them, without trying to make them different from how they are.

What body sensations are here right now? Perhaps quickly scan the body to pick up any sensations of tightness or bracing, acknowledging the sensations, but, once again, not trying to change them in any way.

Step 2: Gathering and focusing attention

Now, redirecting the attention to a narrow ‘spotlight’ on the physical sensations of the breath in the abdomen…..expanding as the breath comes in…..and falling back as the breath goes out. Follow the breath all the way in and all the way out. Use each breath as an opportunity to anchor yourself into the present. And if the mind wanders, gently escort the attention back to the breath.

Step 3: Expanding attention

Now expand the field of awareness around the breathing so that it includes a sense of the body as a whole, your posture and facial expression, as if the whole body was breathing. If you become aware of any sensations of discomfort or tension, feel free to bring your focus of attention right into the intensity by imagining that the breath could move into and around the sensations. In this, you are helping to explore the sensations, befriending them, rather than trying to change them in any way. If they stop pulling for your attention, return to sitting, aware of the whole body, moment by moment.

It is helpful to view your awareness during the Breathing Space Meditation as forming the shape of an hourglass. The wide opening at the beginning when you gently acknowledge what is entering and leaving your awareness. This enables you to notice that you are in doing mode and helps you to disengage yourself from it and focus on being mode. In doing so, you are reminding yourself that your current state of mind is not a ‘fact’ but instead is governed by interlinked thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and impulses to act.

The second step of the Breathing Space is like the narrowing of the hourglass’s neck, it is where you narrow your focus to the sensations of the breath in the abdomen. You focus on the physical sensations of breathing which helps to anchor your mind, grounding you back in the present moment.

The third step of the Breathing Space is like the broadening base of the hourglass. In this you can expand your awareness, you are opening to life as it is. Here you are acknowledging your presence, a sense of your place in the world – your whole mind and body, just as it is, complete in itself, in peace and dignity.


Ceri Louise Morton Thomas is a Mindfulness Teacher and Counsellor. She runs Courses in Art, Nature and Mindfulness. See Facebook: Art, Nature & Mindfulness for more details.

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