5 ways to reduce anxiety, according to Headspace's Dr Megan Bell
Small changes can make a big difference when it comes to mental health
With 1 in 5 people directly impacted by mental health problems, the concept of supporting and improving our mental wellbeing is more important than ever - and it’s more than just a buzzword.
On a basic level, new face-to-face initiatives like #HappyToTalk (a campaign aimed at making friendly exchanges the norm during commutes) and Run Talk Run (a running-meets-mental health support community) are doing their bit when it comes to promoting conversations around mental health and offering a safe space in which to talk.
And yet for many, the concept of talking openly about mental health - particularly in the workplace - remains something of a taboo subject.
We live in an age where technology is undoubtedly speeding up the pace of day-to-day life, ensuring that our every whim is catered to and accessible at the tap of a touchscreen. But just as these developments have left us unable to disconnect from a world functioning at hyperspeed, conversely, that same technology is setting out to help improve our mental wellbeing.
“We should talk about mind health as much as we talk about physical health,” says Dr Megan Jones Bell, Chief Science Officer at meditation app Headspace. “After all, both have a significant impact on our overall well-being.”
By investing in mental health on a basic level and targeting the root cause of a national problem, Dr Bell believes we can prevent the onset and reduce the severity of many mental health problems, “just like a healthy diet and regular exercise helps us reduce risk for physical health problems.”
She believes meditation is one such area worthy of investment.
“We can take time out to unwind, relieve stress and improve mental health,” notes Dr Bell. “Through meditation, we can familiarise ourselves with anxiety-inducing storylines and help us notice what stress-inducing thoughts we’re holding on to. We can learn to see these preoccupying thoughts, sit with them, and let them go by acknowledging that our thoughts do not define us.”
In light of World Mental Health Day, a day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against the stigma of mental health, we sat down with Dr Bell to discover the best ways to focus the mind and help reduce anxiety.
1. Awareness of where you are right now
“Becoming aware of the thoughts, emotions and sensations you feel is the first step in learning to change your relationship to them,” says Dr Bell. “When we learn to notice and observe thoughts as simply thoughts it helps us gain more separation from them in a constructive way - not to litigate their accuracy but to help us realize that our brains manufacture loads of thoughts every moment. Some we might agree with, some might lead to us feeling a certain way, others might not make any sense at all.
“Noting thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally can give us incredible freedom. We can sit with our experiences, be patient with ourselves, and realize that thoughts and feelings are ultimately fleeting experiences.”
2. Use breath to calm the mind
“Deep, even breathing is one of the most overlooked, yet most effective stress management techniques,” notes Dr Bell. “When you’re feeling overwhelmed use your breath as a tool to reset your mind and physiology. When our body’s stress response is activated, breathing can be a powerful way to help us re-set and activate our natural relaxation response.”
“Start by taking deep, full breaths and exhaling slowly out of your mouth. When we are stressed our breathing becomes shorter and shallower, and long-term shallow breathing can actually keep the body in a cycle of stress, affecting both mental and physical health, making you prone to illness. Implementing deep breathing exercises can have a huge impact on your state of mind.”
3. Anchor yourself in the present and avoid overthinking
“Overthinking can induce stressful thoughts and anxiety. Take a moment to stop, relax and enjoy the present. It’s healthy to think about your future and lament on the past, but constantly making this a habit can cause negative, worrying emotions. Focus on the here and now,” notes Dr Bell.
“Particularly in this age of technology, we are not living in the moment. As much as we are connected to one another, we are intentionally distracting ourselves. Sometimes that’s OK but sometimes it just amplifies the noise in our minds. The problem is not with the phone, but how we relate to it. Use the technology and the resources it gives us access to for good. Download a book, use apps that can be mentally stimulating such as playing sudoku, or play some music or your favourite podcast. We can distance ourselves from the negativity of social media and use our phones to do what we love.”
4. Invest in your own self-care
“It is so important to set aside some time for yourself and make ‘you’ the top of your priority list. Do something you enjoy, whether that’s cooking your favourite meal, playing an instrument, reading a book, or getting a coffee. These experiences are not just mental stimulation, but an investment in you.”
“You can also self-care through exercise. Spend some time outside each day even if it’s just a quick walk around the block or for your commute to work. A walk is the perfect occasion to exercise both the mind and the body, and meditation whilst walking can help you re-centre the mind, appreciate the surroundings, and tune into the rhythm of the body. Headspace even offers mindful walking exercises to help bring your attention back to your awareness and reconnect with nature.”
5. Seek support from others
“We should not be afraid to reach out and find comfort in those closest to us. Meditation is not a quick-fix strategy, it is a long-term approach. Life’s pressures can be a lot to handle and cope with alone, and it is important to acknowledge the strong support system around you. Family, friends, colleagues or even professional guidance can help you gain perspective, address your negative emotions and help to relieve worrying thoughts.”
- Looking for more meditative inspiration? Discover our pick of the best mindfullness and meditation books around.