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 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," say 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
Free writing 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 journal Advances in Psychiatric Treatment found that people who write about emotional, stressful, or traumatic events saw an improvement in their physical and psychological health.
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. It's startlingly simple, but studies confirm that switching off the TV, silencing your phone, and embracing silence are vital for mental health.
Research published in the journal Heart found that two minutes of silence is more relaxing than listening to soothing music, and it can lower blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain. A study by the University of Michigan found that the brain lets down it's "sensory guard" and restores itself in moments of silence.
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. Researchers at the University of Sussex found that reading is the number one most effective way to combat stress, beating listening to music, having a cup of tea, and taking a walk.
"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," cognitive neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis told The Telegraph.
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.
Can't meditate? Tell us how you incorporate mindfulness into your day.