I'll be completely honest: The thought of sitting alone in a room for a prolonged period absolutely terrifies me. Whenever I attempt to meditate, my thoughts run haywire, and I can't help but feel like there are more productive ways to spend my time.
I'm not the only one who struggles with this age-old practice. "No matter how many reports there are proving the mental, emotional, and physical value of being quiet, there seems to be an even greater number who refuse to give it a try," says Mindful's Deb Shapiro. After years of stress and constant stimulation, "The mind has no idea how to be still," she argues. "Rather, it craves entertainment. It’s not as if you can suddenly turn it off when you meditate, it just means you are like everyone else."
If you've never managed to master the art of meditation, there are other ways to train your mind to be still. Here, we spotlight five of the best startlingly simple activities that promote mindfulness and are scientifically proven to reduce stress and anxiety. The best bit? They don't require much time and will fit into your busy schedule.
Forget meditation—these five activities will help you achieve clarity and calm.
Put Pen to Paper
Freewriting is the practice of continuously penning your thoughts for a set period of time, without paying attention to spelling, grammar, or even a topic. You don't have to structure paragraphs or worry about adhering to writing convention; the point of this exercise is to encourage a stream of consciousness, where your inner monolog flows freely onto the page.
Studies suggest free writing has serious mental health benefits. Research published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that positive emotional writing can reduce anxiety.
If you're short on time, this is the perfect mindfulness activity. Those involved in research penned their thoughts for just 15 to 20 minutes on three to five occasions and noticed the benefits.
Alter Your Breathing Technique
If you prefer activities that involve clear instruction, breathwork is a great alternative to meditation. The practice endorses different breathing techniques to improve mental, physical, and spiritual health. "[It's] an active meditation that moves stuck energy, limiting beliefs, and emotional blockages," explains breathwork teacher Michelle D'Avella.
Don't let the talk of healing and energy fool you—science suggests there are proven benefits from altering your breathing technique. "Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange—that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide," explains a Harvard review of relaxation techniques. "Not surprisingly, it can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure," thus quelling anxiety and stress.
Switch Off Sound
If you can't find time to do any other mindfulness activity, this should be at the top of your priority list: Dedicate a moment in your day to exist in silence. This can be as easy as switching off the TV, silencing your phone, and embracing silence.
Research published in the journal Explore found that silence is just as effective as music at lowering anxiety.
Supercharge your silent session by stepping outside for a walk. Those who take frequent nature walks show decreased depression, improved mental health, and lower perceived stress.
Get Lost in a Novel
If you feel scattered and overwhelmed by life, pick up a book. In a recent survey, health sciences students reported leisure reading as providing both personal and professional benefits.
"This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness," says cognitive neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis.
Adult coloring books might have seemed like a momentary fad in 2015, but the practice has ongoing benefits. Coloring fosters creativity and encourages you to focus attention on a small, simple task, helping your mind switch off, if only for a moment.
Neuropsychologist Dr. Stan Rodski says coloring elicits a physical response from the body, too. "The most amazing things occurred—we started seeing changes in heart rate, changes in brainwaves," he told the Australian Broadcasting Network.
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Zaccaro A, Piarulli A, Laurino M, et al. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:353. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353
Malakoutikhah A, Dehghan M, Ghonchehpoorc A, Parandeh Afshar P, Honarmand A. The Effect of Different Genres of Music and Silence on Relaxation and Anxiety: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Explore (NY). 2020:S1550-8307(20)30086-0. doi:10.1016/j.explore.2020.02.005
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Mantzios M, Giannou K. When Did Coloring Books Become Mindful? Exploring the Effectiveness of a Novel Method of Mindfulness-Guided Instructions for Coloring Books to Increase Mindfulness and Decrease Anxiety. Front Psychol. 2018;9:56. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00056