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Mindfulness can help Manage Stress and Reduce Rumination. It can also help us to Eat Healthy.

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By Dr. Dawn M. Sweet

Developing a mindfulness practice can help you manage stress and manage your weight. When we are feeling less stressed, we are more likely to make better food choices and not overeat. 

On the surface, mindfulness seems like an easy word to understand. We often hear people say things like, “be mindful of what you say” or “be mindful of what you are doing.” But are these really the correct uses of mindfulness?

One of the most often cited definitions of mindfulness comes from John Kabat-Zin who refers to it as, “nonjudgmental attention to experiences in the present moment.”  Mindfulness is a presence of mind where we shine a spotlight on what we are thinking and feeling in the present by simply observing those sensations without judgment. Mindfulness allows for the awareness of our emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations exactly as they without judgment.

Mindfulness, Stress Reduction, and Rumination

Mindfulness can reduce stress, which is known to be associated with weight gain. Stress is mental tension or feeling worried because of a perceived difficult situation. Rumination is a tendency to have repetitive thoughts about a negative experience, thought, or feeling. Stress and rumination are related; the more we ruminate, the more stress we experience.

Have you ever had a negatively charged conversation with a co-worker that prompted you to feel angry, upset, or irritated? Once getting home from work, have you ever caught yourself muttering about what was said and what you should have said? Or have you ever caught yourself feeling the same negative emotions, almost with the same intensity, as you thought about that conversation? That is rumination — repetitive thoughts about an unpleasant event. The more you re-live the upsetting interaction the more you probably found yourself feeling stressed. And once stressed, perhaps you found yourself making sub-optimal decisions about what to eat as a way to cope with your negative feelings and thoughts? Mindfulness can help mitigate rumination and stress.

Getting Started with Mindfulness

There are several different ways to practice mindfulness. For example, some mindfulness practices include meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga. Each of these practices require attention to our breath, our bodily sensations, and the present moment. Have you ever tried to do Downward Facing Dog without paying attention to where your hands and feet are? If so, you likely felt yourself wobble a bit!

To get started with mindfulness practice set realistic goals and expectations. If you’ve never mediated, then perhaps you should set a goal of five minutes rather than 60 minutes. Set yourself up for success so your mindfulness practice can evolve and grow and over time.  Here are some tips to get started:

  • Schedule time in your day. Maybe it’s first thing in the morning, or right before you leave for work, or lunchtime. It’s important to schedule this time for yourself so you build the daily habit. Set a timer so you know when to begin and end. Make sure the timer sounds pleasant.
  • No special equipment is needed. While you can certainly invest in a meditation pillow or bench, you can also just find a quiet place to sit. Find a place to sit that is comfortable and provides a stable, solid seat. It can be a chair, a stool, a bench, or even the ground.
  • Sit upright. Sit upright but not stiffly. Be aware of your spine and a back and allow your spine to settle into its natural curvature.
  • Notice your arms and legs. Allow your arms and legs to get comfortable. You can rest your hands with your palms down or palms up on the top of your thighs. You can sit with both feet flat on the ground or you can sit with your legs crossed. Be comfortable.
  • Eyes open or closed. You can also soften your gaze by dropping your chin a little and allowing your gaze to fall downward. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can close your eyes, though this is not required for mindfulness practice.
  • Find your breath. As you breathe, pay attention to each breath as you breathe in and breathe out. Notice the physical sensation of your breath as you take in air through your nose and breathe out through your mouth. Feel your chest and stomach rising and falling. You can place one of your hands on your diaphragm to help you focus on your breath.
  • Catch your wandering mind. As you are focusing on your breathing, you may catch your mind wandering to that unpleasant interaction, or to your grocery list, or what you need to do tomorrow. That’s OK. Acknowledge any thoughts, don’t react or judge them, and return to your breath. Return to the moment.
  • Lift your gaze or open your eyes. When you are done, refocus your gaze or open your eyes. Notice what is happening around you and notice how you feel and notice any thoughts or emotions.

Developing a mindfulness practice can help you manage stress and manage your weight. When we are feeling less stressed, we are more likely to make better food choices and not overeat.

About the Author: Dr. Dawn M. Sweet has over 20 years of experience in the field of communication. Dr. Sweet has given several invited talks to and workshops for academic and private sector audiences on the role of nonverbal and verbal communication in achieving positive outcomes and mitigating bias. Her research has been published in several top ranked peer-review journals, and it has been featured on NPR’s River to River / All Things Considered, Buzzfeed, and Science Daily. Her research has also been used to inform expert testimony.

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