If you’ve got a pulse on the wellness world, you’ve likely heard about mindfulness exercises—a term that captures various techniques for bringing your attention to the present moment. You might have even tried your fair share of mindfulness meditations with the help of an app, a guided video session, or your smartphone’s timer. But let’s be real: Not everyone has the time (or desire) to pencil in a formal meditation practice.
That’s totally okay, because the beauty of mindfulness is that you can apply it in small ways throughout daily life. “Some [people] have the misconception that mindfulness means they need to sit cross-legged, eyes closed, and ready to commit to at least 10 to 15 minutes,” Hemisha Patel Urgola, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Princeton University and the founder of The Mindful Practice, tells SELF. However, it doesn’t need to be that at all (unless that’s your jam, of course); you can still experience the mental health benefits of mindfulness using super simple techniques, Dr. Urgola says.
Mindfulness is the practice of being present and aware; it means acknowledging whatever you’re feeling, sensing, and thinking in a calm and non-judgmental way. According to Dr. Urgola, this mindset can be used in the moment to get through tough experiences, like running late to work or arguing with your partner, say. When practiced regularly, it can also spark long-term changes in how you connect with your thoughts, Dr. Urgola adds. Over time, this can improve your ability to navigate mental health struggles—namely stress, anxiety, and depression—she says.
While learning how to meditate is certainly one form of mindfulness practice, it’s not the only way to increase your present-moment awareness. But don’t take our word for it: We asked experts for quick, simple mindfulness exercises that can be added to just about any schedule. Below, you’ll get an overview of some of the benefits of mindfulness, as well as how to practice mindful awareness without meditation—whether you’re low on time or simply looking for some short and sweet relief.
Benefits of mindfulness | How does mindfulness work? | Mindfulness exercises
What are some of the benefits of mindfulness?
If you’re new to mindfulness, the popularity of the practice can (understandably) make it hard to take seriously. That being said, its buzziness is pretty legit, as there’s a growing body of evidence supporting the benefits of mindfulness for mental health.
In a 2021 study published in the Frontiers in Psychology, for example, people who participated in a six-week mindfulness course reported lower stress levels.1 Similarly, a 2019 study in the same journal found that mindfulness meditation helped improve depression and anxiety symptoms, partly by reducing worry and rumination (thinking about something over and over and over again).2 And get this: A 2022 randomized clinical trial published in JAMA Psychiatry found mindfulness-based stress reduction to be just as effective as escitalopram, an SSRI that’s a first-line prescription medication for anxiety and depression.3 That’s not to say it’s the answer to everyone’s mental health issues but, more and more, mindfulness-based interventions have been shown to be a legitimate treatment option.
Considering that mindfulness can ease a stressed-out mind, it’s not surprising that it can also be helpful for insomnia and other sleep problems. (After all, insomnia has a close connection with anxiety and depression, both of which can make it hard to fall and stay asleep.1) In one 2021 study, researchers observed that mindfulness-based therapy improved sleep quality in older adults, and a 2018 meta-analysis published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine showed that mindfulness-based interventions can successfully treat insomnia.
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How does mindfulness work?
The mental well-being effects of mindfulness can largely be traced back to the way it helps you navigate stressors, Cassandra Vieten, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of the University of California San Diego Center for Mindfulness, tells SELF. Dr. Urgola echoes this concept, noting that stress and anxiety are often related to the way you think about a situation, rather than the situation itself. Specifically, she says, these mentally distressing states tend to occur when you over-connect and identify with negative thoughts, causing you to treat them as reality.
On a similar note, Dr. Vieten says that, for many people, most stress comes from thoughts about the past and worries about the future; it rarely stems from things that are happening right now. However, when you practice mindfulness, you’re training your brain to focus more on the present moment, she explains. Put another way, mindfulness allows you to disconnect from your thoughts about a particular situation and “just be,” says Dr. Urgola. “Our mind unclutters itself from all the noise for a little bit,” she adds. Sound like a welcome mental break? Below are seven basic, beginner-friendly ways to become more mindful.