Stress, anger, and anxiety can impair not only our health but our judgment and skills of attention. One way to help deal with these difficult feelings is the practice of “mindfulness,” the ability to pay careful attention to what you're thinking, feeling, and sensing in the present moment without judging those thoughts and feelings as good or bad. Countless studies link mindfulness to better health, lower anxiety, and greater resilience to stress.
But how do you cultivate mindfulness? A basic method is to focus your attention on your own breathing—a practice called, quite simply, “mindful breathing.” After setting aside time to practice mindful breathing, you may find it easier to focus attention on your breath in your daily life—an important skill to help you deal with stress, anxiety, and negative emotions, cool yourself down when your temper flares, and sharpen your skills of concentration.
5 minutes daily for at least a week (though evidence suggests that mindfulness increases the more you practice it).
The most basic way to do mindful breathing is to focus your attention on your breath, the inhale and exhale. You can do this while standing, but ideally you’ll be sitting or even lying in a comfortable position. Your eyes may be open or closed, or you can maintain a soft gaze, with your eyes partially closed but not focusing on anything in particular. It can help to set aside a designated time for this exercise, but it can also help to practice it when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious. Experts believe a regular practice of mindful breathing can make it easier to do in difficult situations.
Sometimes, especially when trying to calm yourself in a stressful moment, it might help to start by taking an exaggerated breath: a deep inhale through your nostrils (3 seconds), hold your breath (2 seconds), and a long exhale through your mouth (4 seconds). Otherwise, observe each breath without trying to adjust it; it may help to focus on the rise and fall of your chest or the sensation through your nostrils. As you do so, you may find that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations. That’s OK. You can notice that this is happening and try to gently bring your attention back to your breath.
To provide even more structure, and help you lead this practice for others, below are steps for a short guided meditation. You can listen to audio of this guided meditation, produced by UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), in the player below; if it doesn't play, you can find it here or download it from MARC's website.
Arch, J. J., & Craske, M. G. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness: Emotion regulation following a focused breathing induction. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(12), 1849-1858.
Americans who completed a 15-minute focused breathing exercise (similar to Mindful Breathing) reported less negative emotion in response to negative images, compared with people who didn’t complete the exercise. These results suggest that focused breathing helped improve people’s ability to regulate their emotions.
Who Has Tried the Practice?
The participants in the above study were mostly female and Asian or white. Additional research has engaged members of other groups:
Mindful Breathing is one of the mindfulness practices included in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and based on Buddhist teachings, MBSR is a six- to 10-week program that teaches various mindfulness techniques through weekly sessions and homework assignments. Research suggests that MBSR benefits the mental health of various groups, including the following:
More research is needed to explore whether, and how, the impact of this practice extends to other groups and cultures.
Mindfulness gives us distance from our thoughts and feelings, which can help us tolerate and work through unpleasant feelings rather than becoming overwhelmed by them. Mindful breathing in particular is helpful because it gives us an anchor—our breath—on which we can focus when we find ourselves carried away by a stressful thought. Mindful breathing can also help us stay “present” in the moment, rather than being distracted by regrets in the past or worries about the future.
Diana Winston, Ph.D., UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center