In a world where we’re accessible almost all of the time, it can feel nearly impossible to shut down, even for a few minutes, in an effort to engage in a little self-care. Smart phones, for example, are definitely affecting our mental health—and that’s because our texts and emails are always right there, begging us to look, scroll, and respond.
On top of being so digitally connected that we end up feeling disconnected, about 18 percent of Americans also have anxiety or depression, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, which can be caused by any number of factors—including our genetics and lifestyle choices. This is where meditation comes in.
A study published in the journal BMC Complementary Alternative Medicine looked at why people choose to meditate. According to their findings, 92 percent of meditators used their practice for stress management, while other highly-rated reasons included emotional well-being and the promotion of other healthy behaviors.
Meditation can literally change our brains; as a daily practice, it has the potential to increase regions of the brain associated with emotional regulation and response control, according to a study published in the journal NeuroImage.
The fact is, most of us can’t drop everything and go to a meditation class or do an hour-long meditation each day. However, there are tried-and-true ways to incorporate beneficial meditative practices into your everyday life and larger mental health strategies—helping you to connect with yourself and disengage from the overwhelming fast pace of modern life.
1. Use an app
Sure, your iPhone might be a source of your overwhelm—but it can also be a tool for good. Meditation apps are ideal for anyone looking for a little zen in between zipping (or slogging!) through meetings and deadlines. Whether you’re totally new to meditation or you simply find a guided session makes it easier for you to stay accountable, a slew of digital options exist to help you achieve a little peace.
“Often times, the people who don’t have time to spend 10 minutes a day to meditate are the ones who need it most,” says Michael Acton Smith, co-CEO and co-founder of Calm.com and the app Calm. “It’s less than one percent of your day, but doing so will make the other 99 percent better.”
Acton Smith notes that his company’s “Daily Calm” feature is popular in its simplicity: It offers a new 10-minute meditation each day.
“I find that the best way to make it a habit is to do it before or after something you already do (e.g. brush your teeth, showering, etc),” he says. “It’s a wonderful and healthy way to start the day.”
Other apps include Headspace, Stop, Breath, and Think, and Insight Timer. When using these apps, you’ll typically have the option to choose a guided or unguided meditation for a duration (five, 10, or more minutes) of time that works for you. These apps offer meditation topic choices (for example, gratitude or happiness) or open-ended meditation sessions. You can even set a timer to remind you to step away and find your zen a few times per day. Easy-peasy.
2. Eat your way to Zen
If you’re super-busy, you can even use mealtime as a chance to unwind. Sure, it may seem easier to wolf down a sandwich in your car while en route to a meeting, the office, or home, but really focusing on your meal is a chance to practice meditation.
“If you take a moment and think of each bite—this is a great way to bring mindfulness and an eating meditation into your life,” says Tal Rabinowitz, CEO and founder of The Den Meditation, a neighborhood meditation studio with two Los Angeles locations. “It’s something you would have been doing anyway!”
Focusing on what’s on your plate and eating in a meditative way isn’t only good for the soul, but for your entire body. In an article published in the journal Health Psychology, researchers looked at ways mindful eating could affect otherwise unhealthy food choices. They concluded that “mindful eating is a beneficial strategy to reduce impulsive food choice, at least temporarily, that may impede weight gain.”
Here’s how, according to Harvard Medical School, you might mindfully eat during a meal: You’ll want to start with a small portion. Before eating, silently think about your gratitude for the food and for the experience. Mentally log the color, texture, and scent of the food, taking small bites which you chew 20 to 40 times.
3. Take A Time Out
According to Beth Stone, an Orlando-based yoga instructor who works with the Young Yogi Program, it’s key to make time to press reset.
“We all have busy lifestyles but life on the go doesn’t have to translate into a forfeit of self-care,” she explains. “When we take a few minutes to ground, center, and reset, we are much more likely to think clearly, act from a place of compassion, and act from our highest available vibration.”
She suggests finding a place (that might even be a bathroom stall) where you can sit with your back against a wall—ideally a corner where two walls meet. First, just breathe.
“Take nice, slow inhalations,” she advises. “Connect your physical body to the earth and the space around you.”
Next, place one hand on the front of your belly and the other hand on your lower back. Continue taking slow, deep breaths into your front hand, filling up all the space you can into your hand.
“Exhale and allow the belly to flatten towards the back of the spinal cord,” instructs Stone. “Breathe into the back hand, filling the back hand up as much as possible. With the exhale, allow the back of the spine to relax back in toward the spinal cord. Continue this breathing pattern for three to five cycles.”
Breathing exercises do more than slow you down and force you to disconnect, though. According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Cases, this sort of breathing may “positively impact our compensatory mechanisms to restore functional cognitive reserves.” It goes on to say, “It is very likely that meditation and intentional rhythmic breathing may, in part, reduce the overall physiological strain and mental workload on these human systems.”
4. Imagine a warm light washing over you.
We already know how powerful breathing can be—but couple that with creative visualization and you have a beautiful routine at the ready.
For this exercise, you’ll want to find a place where you can breath and visualize for a for moments—whether that be at your desk or in your bed before falling asleep. “You can wear whatever you want and you can be anywhere,” Rabinowitz says. “Sit in a chair, on the floor, on your bed. Zero props required.”
To do this, “[For the] first breath, breathe in deep and relax your shoulders on the exhale,” says Rabinowitz. “With the second, third and subsequent breaths, picture a warm light washing over you. This can really help you detach from the insanity and calm down. This doesn’t mean your brain is going to shut off, but it can bring you down from a 10 to a three.”
5. Take a walk outside.
Earthing (also known as grounding) is the act of putting your body in direct contact with the earth—whether it be water, soil, sand, or any other natural element. A study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America showed that grounding can have an immense neurological effect on our well-being. In the study, people who walk in a wooded area (for 90 minutes) were less likely to feel stressful and anxious.
While outdoors, you might want to do a simple walking meditation. During this, you’ll want to deliberately notice your steps and pace, you’ll tune in your breathing, and you’ll take note of the sights and sounds—the crunch of leaves, the sound of water—all around you.