Health & Wellness

Starting a Mindfulness Practice: Practical Tips from Meriden McGraw, MS, MPH

Feb. 19, 2024

Stress levels in society are currently at an all-time high, impacting our mental health significantly. Although not all stress is harmful, we're facing an abundance of it, often lacking the tools to manage it effectively.

In 2015, Harvard Health published the statement, “To combat the stress epidemic, businesses and schools alike will need to start teaching stress reduction skills such as mindfulness and meditation—skills that are proven to reduce anxiety and stress and increase focus and resiliency.”

Mindfulness, a practice rooted in mindfulness meditation, is an evidence-based mind-body technique that can help regulate the nervous system, enabling us to perceive and manage stress differently. A practice that has garnered significant attention for its positive impact on mental health, research shows that consistent mindfulness practice or mindfulness meditation, can improve focus, self-awareness, resilience, relationship satisfaction, and emotion regulation, resulting in happier, healthier individuals and organizations.

At its core, mindfulness is about being present in the moment without judgment. Although simple, it's not always easy. Through this article, find guidance on implementing mindfulness into your life from Meriden McGraw, MS, MPH, an expert in the field of mindfulness and meditation at the Osher Center for Integrative Health at the University of Cincinnati.

Understanding Mindfulness

What is Mindfulness?

Do you often arrive at work without remembering the drive there? Or sit in a meeting, physically present but mentally elsewhere? Practicing mindfulness invites us to step away from autopilot mode, encouraging us to be fully present where our feet are planted. This mental training, derived from ancient techniques and validated by modern science, offers an alternative to habits of worry, anxiety, and frustration. It’s about training the mind to be in the present moment, attentively observing both external stimuli and internal sensations without judgment.

Cultivating a mindfulness practice allows us to fully embrace life's experiences, acknowledging each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant, without an immediate reaction or judgment. It’s a technique that enhances mental health by fostering attention, awareness, and acceptance.

The Importance of Mindfulness in Daily Life

Incorporating mindfulness into daily life can significantly enhance mental health and well-being. It's something you can practice anywhere, anytime—during walks, showers, while brushing teeth, washing dishes, or talking to a loved one. These small, micro-moments of practice, add up over time.

Mindfulness allows us to release what no longer serves us and acknowledge what we tend to ignore. Consistent practice reshapes the brain, fostering calmer responses to challenges instead of impulsive reactions. This cultivates inner peace amid chaos, promotes rational decision-making, and enhances focus on priorities, resulting in happier, healthier individuals.

Mindfulness and Mental Health

Engaging in mindfulness meditation has been shown to have numerous mental health benefits. It aids in managing symptoms of anxiety and depression, fosters emotional resilience, and improves overall mood. The practice also enhances self-awareness, allowing individuals to understand and address their thoughts and emotions more effectively.

A comprehensive analysis of 4,000 scientific papers found that implementing Mindfulness in the corporate space improves focus, self-awareness, leadership competencies, resilience, relationship satisfaction, emotion regulation, adaptability, cognitive ability, verbal and non-verbal reasoning, and sleep while reducing stress, burnout, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The Basics of Starting a Mindfulness Practice

Initiating Your Mindfulness Meditation Journey

Embark on your mindfulness journey with manageable steps. Imagine beginning marathon training as a beginner runner, you wouldn’t start by running 15 miles on the first day.  Similarly, when embracing a new behavioral health practice like mindfulness, starting small and maintaining consistency is key. Here are two beginner-friendly mindfulness exercises to kickstart your practice:

Embrace Mindful Moments Daily: Choose your favorite moment of the day, whether it's stepping out of your office at the end of a long day, savoring the first bite of your lunch, returning home to a toddler running into your arms, enjoying your morning shower, engaging in a workout, or taking a walk. Whatever it may be, allow this daily ritual to anchor your mindfulness meditation practice.

Be truly present for the experience:

  • Take a moment to notice how you feel physically—pay attention to any physical sensations in your body.
  • Observe what you see around you, the colors, shapes, and movements. Tune into the sounds, whether they are subtle or prominent.
  • Take note of anything you can taste or smell, allowing yourself to fully experience these sensations. Observe your emotions and thoughts without judgment.
  • Notice if your mind tries to rush through the moment or wanders to other thoughts. When this happens, gently redirect your attention back to the present moment.
  • Aim to immerse in this mindfulness exercise for at least 60 seconds, if possible, allowing yourself to fully engage with the experience. By practicing mindfulness in this way, you can cultivate a deeper appreciation for the present moment and enhance your overall well-being.

Pick an anchor—a consistent point of focus for your practice such as your mindful breathing, a sound or visual point in your environment. Often mindfulness teachers will cue you to focus on the breath. Why? It’s always with you, consistently in the present moment. However, the breath isn’t right for every person.

Cultivate Focus:

  • Pick anything happening around or within you—the sound of a fan or traffic driving by, the sensations in your left pinky toe, words you repeat, a black spot on the wall, anything.
  • Set a timer for a brief mindfulness session of 60 seconds. Focus on your chosen anchor. Notice when the mind wanders, which it will—remind yourself that you’re human and redirect your attention back to that anchor, that one thing. Again, and again and again. This act of kind redirection is where the true essence of mindfulness meditation practice lies.

Mindfulness Tips:

  • Embrace distractions as part of the practice. Dog barking? Phone ringing? Email binging? Perfect! That’s just a more advanced practice. We don’t practice mindfulness meditation to get better at meditation. We practice to experience life differently, and life is not distraction-free. Use everything happening around or within you as part of your practice. Notice and come back to what you are focusing on.
  • The mind will always wander. A common misconception is that the goal is to clear the mind. The mind will always wander.
  • If stillness feels challenging, integrate mindful movement into your practice. Notice what the body feels like as you walk. Link your steps with your breath. Get curious about what it feels like to move your body.
  • Start with small increments of time and gradually increase as consistency builds.
  • Set reminders to help establish a daily practice. For example, you might set an alarm on your phone, schedule a calendar reminder, or put post-it notes on your desk, to nurture a consistent mindfulness meditation practice.

Mindfulness isn't about achieving a specific state but about being present in whatever state you find yourself in. It's a gentle, continuous process of coming back to the present moment. As you weave mindfulness into the fabric of your life, you can discover not just improved mental health but a deeper sense of connection and peace.

If you’re seeking support in making mindfulness a habit in your life, the Osher Center for Integrative Health at the University of Cincinnati offers regular mind-body therapy classes and events—view the schedule here.