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Here's How To Be Mindful AF Even When Life Is Stressful

Apparently it's the secret to being happier, calmer, and just generally more awesome.

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You might even have a few questions about it.

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Like, what is it? Should you be doing it? Is it really just another name for meditation? And is it actually worth squeezing into your already busy schedule?

To answer these questions, BuzzFeed Health spoke to psychologists Bonnie Marks, PsyD, from NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation, and Andrea Bonior, PhD, author of Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World. Here’s what they had to say.

1. In the simplest sense, mindfulness is about being present and accepting your thoughts and feelings.

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Stress has a way of taking up too much space in our heads, lingering after a bad commute and building up the more we think about all the stuff we need to get done.

Mindfulness works to counteract our daily stress. It helps you focus your attention in the "right now," so that you're not worrying about what's already happened or what might happen next, Marks says. To really make the most of the present moment, sometimes you need to take a second to fully recognize it, she says.

2. The first step to being mindful is being aware of the here and now.

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That means taking stock of not only your surroundings but how you fit into them. You want to engage all of your senses, Bonior says.

What do you see? How does the air smell? Are you breathing calmly? Are any of your muscles tense? What’s the temperature and how does the breeze (if there is any) feel on your skin? By checking off this imaginary list, you’ll immerse yourself more fully in your environment and have a stronger sense of how your body feels in it, Marks says.

3. The next step is accepting the thoughts that pop into your head, and then letting them go — without being judgmental or freaking out.

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This might be the more difficult part of being mindful, but it's key when it comes to reaping the benefits.

Think of your thoughts as the debris you see floating along a river. Some of it might be positive and some of it might be negative, but either way, you’re not going to swim out to grab it, so you just watch it pass by, she says. This will help you acknowledge your thoughts without getting “locked in” — aka getting swept up in that river of ~feels~.

As you practice observing your thoughts and feelings without judgement, you’ll get better at controlling your reactions to them, even when you’re not practicing mindfulness, Marks says. So you won’t get as angry or sad or worried by something as quickly. And in turn, you’ll become more patient with yourself and other people, Marks says.

4. Mindfulness can involve meditation, but it doesn’t have to.

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You don’t have to be in your living room, sitting cross-legged on the floor for 20 minutes a day in order to practice mindfulness, but it wouldn't hurt, Marks says.

While mindfulness is a form of meditation in that you’re focusing on your breathing and the present moment’s sensations, you can be literally anywhere or doing anything while also being mindful.

5. Mindful eating is a thing, and it can make food even better.

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Instead of inhaling your food in front of the TV or scarfing down a slice of pizza while racing to your next destination, mindful eating is all about savoring the experience and paying attention to your body. So, yes, you should be seated, Bonior says. You might also want to take smaller bites and chew for longer, Marks says.

“It’s a matter of really noticing the smell. If you’re picking up an apple, noticing how it feels in your hand. Focusing on the crunch and [relishing] the flavor,” Bonior says.

Basically your giving your food undivided attention, and in turn, you're getting a more enjoyable, nourishing experience, says Marks. You’ll also be more attuned to your body’s signals, so you’ll recognize more easily when you’re full.

6. You can also mindfully exercise.

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Think being in ~the zone~, Marks says. You’re so focused on executing the movements the right way that your concerns about that important meeting later have no space to live.

So if you’re a runner, for example, Marks says you can be mindful by feeling the pavement, hearing the sounds of your feet hitting the ground, and being aware of your body and the environment in general. Being mindful will help you recognize when your muscles are tight, or when you need to focus more on your form, she says.

7. Seriously, you can do it anywhere, any time.

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No matter what the activity it is, you’ll be more engaged because it’ll have your full attention. If you’re taking a shower, you could pay attention to how the shampoo feels in your hair and how the water runs over your body, Marks says. Maybe even consider how lucky you are to have clean, running water for a shower.

The same goes if you’re commuting via subway or riding an elevator or sitting at your desk at work. “Stop for a second, focus on what you’re feeling, your breathing, your muscle tension,” Bonior says. “Look around. What do you see? What are you smelling right now, as slowly as you can? What do you notice about your surroundings?”

8. Plus, it's free, it's easy, and you'll get even better with practice.

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Two of the biggest misconceptions about mindfulness is that it’s difficult and time consuming, Bonior says. But neither of these are true.

“I’ve heard people say that their mind is too noisy, that they’ll never learn how to do it, and that they’re terrible at this stuff,” Marks says. “But the idea is to try to stay with it,” because those are the thoughts you’re learning to let pass by on that imaginary river.

There’s also no specific time frame for when you’ll start to see a difference — it just gets easier as you get more comfortable with it, Bonior says. You'll simply start to feel more aware of your body and, by extension, your emotions.

9. Mindfulness can help you pick up on things you do when you're stressed or angry or anxious, so that you know how to calm yourself down in the future.

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For instance, maybe you never realized you clench your jaw every time you get in an argument, and that it typically happens right before your anger goes through the roof.

With mindfulness, Bonior says you’ll be able to notice this physical reaction, and hopefully be more aware of how it triggers your anger so that next time you can take a step back and breathe — making it a healthier interaction for everyone involved, really.

10. It also helps with stress and anxiety and lots of other health issues.

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By now, you’ve probably gotten a general idea of how mindfulness helps to reduce stress and anxiety. After all, it’s those nagging thoughts about the past and future that trigger these issues. But Marks and Bonior both agree that there are other ways in which it improves health. Here are some examples:

* Depression: Mindfulness helps people with depression recognize their own thought patterns, and with therapy they can learn how to replace them, Marks says.

* Pain: Tension only makes pain worse, Bonior says. So if you’re always in pain, mindfulness might help to ease that tension. It’ll also help you focus on other sensory experiences — relaxation plus a distraction equals “the best of both worlds,” she says.

* PTSD: Due to their trauma, Bonior says people with PTSD might not always be connected to their emotional experiences, even when they’re positive. “Mindfulness can help get them re-engaged,” she says.

* Memory: Ever notice how at the end of your day it all feels like a blur? That’s because so many of us never really engage in what we’re doing in the moment, Bonior says. Mindfulness helps us tune into the present, and because of that, we remember more of it — not to mention it becomes a more fulfilling experience.

* Immune system: As mindfulness reduces stress, it also lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can affect how the immune system works, Marks says. In other words, mindfulness helps to build immunity.

11. Literally anyone can practice mindfulness.

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But it’s especially helpful for people who might feel disconnected from themselves, like your life is full on paper, but something still feels like it’s missing.

It’s also helpful if you’re “locked in a pattern of obsession or dwelling or ruminating,” Bonior says. “Mindfulness can really help teach you how to accept thoughts and let them go, rather than getting into that cycle of fighting the thoughts and being disturbed by them. Because then, we’re just spending all of that time in that pattern.”

“It can feel discouraging for people whose minds are always racing trying to get in that zone,” Bonior says. “It might take practice, but that’s OK because the practice is worth it.”

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