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Why Slowing Down Is Good for Mental Health


HIGHLIGHTS | How to slow down

  • Slowing down, or mindfulness, means focusing on the present moment.
  • Mindfulness can be hard to build into your routine if you’re busy all the time.
  • Not taking time for yourself can lead to things like burnout, however.
  • Even small moments of mindfulness have health benefits.
  • Set yourself up for success by working mindfulness into your existing routine.
  • Try a nightly gratitude practice or take a few deep breaths with your morning coffee.

 

Between working, caring for children, cooking, exercising, doing chores and errands, and just the general angst of this year, it can seem like you’re always on the go (literally or mentally). This can be stressful, especially if you aren’t taking many breaks.

Sometimes, slowing down and doing less is actually more when it comes to your health (even if it seems counterintuitive). This is what UW School of Medicine psychiatry resident Amelia Wendt, MD, recently wrote about in an article for the journal Academic Psychiatry. The article’s title, “Right Here, Right Now, on Purpose,” is itself a kind of mantra for achieving a slower pace of living, even if just for a few moments.

“Mindfulness is something that often sounds so simple and yet at the same time can be elusive to actually do, especially in a year like 2020 where there’s so much vying for our attention,” Wendt says.

What slowing down really means

Wendt writes about joining a virtual mindfulness group for veterans and how, when the group decided to do a mindfulness exercise, she realized it was the first time in a while that she’d allowed her mind and body to slow down.

“With my eyes closed, I noticed the haze obscuring the present moment start to lift. As my attention shifted to the here and now, I felt the spinning crises slow to a rest in the past and the future. I felt my heart rate slow, my shoulders relax and my mind quiet,” Wendt writes.

This is all slowing down is: taking a moment to just be, to exist in the present and notice that existence. The idea is simple, but the action isn’t always. It can be easy to get caught up in responsibilities and distractions like social media.

“We often measure our value by how much we’re doing and how many things are on our to-do list. I wonder if sometimes that gets in the way of living as fully. Is that how we want to spend our days?” Wendt says.

When mindful moments are hard to come by

Let’s be real: Mindfulness is, sometimes, a bit of a luxury. Many people can’t regularly focus on themselves, especially nowadays. This is particularly true for people who are caregivers for others, such as patients, children, or other family members.

Not taking any time to slow down or be mindful can contribute to things like burnout and ultimately make it more difficult to care for others.

“I like to tell my patients and myself this: The best way to support other people is care for yourself first,” Wendt explains.

Even if you’re extremely busy, there are small ways you can take time for yourself to slow down and reflect (more on that shortly). And if you’re one of those people who is always giving to others without giving to yourself, maybe it’s time for a subtle mindset shift.

Try to allow yourself to slow down if you need it, in whatever way you can. And if you know you need to pencil in more “me” time but haven’t felt like you can yet, Wendt suggests being forgiving rather than turning mindfulness into another task on your to-do list and then shaming yourself for not accomplishing it.

“If adding mindfulness to your routine doesn’t feel doable right now, that’s ok, just give yourself a little grace,” she says.

How to slow down

Here are some ways Wendt slows down her own life and tips for how you can do so, too.

Start a gratitude practice

At the end of each day, Wendt likes to take a few moments to slow her mind and body down, sit quietly and write down three things she’s grateful for that happened that day. She even keeps a journal on her nightstand just for this purpose.

“They could be small things, like a free coffee at Starbucks, or big things, like a patient letting me know they felt heard during our visit,” she says.

One variation of this is called the “three good things” gratitude practice, where you write down three things that went well that day and the role you played in bringing them about.

Writing down things you’re grateful for is a streamlined way to practice gratitude and get your thoughts and feelings down on paper without needing the time and space it takes to, say, write a full-on journal entry, Wendt says.

Try slowing down your breath

It may seem overly simplistic, but sometimes in the face of stress or uncertainty just stopping for a moment to take a few deep, slow breaths can make a big difference.

Wendt says she likes to do this before each session with a patient, to center herself and focus her mind.

The good thing about breath work is that you can do it anywhere, anytime. There are different breathing patterns you can try as well, such as square breathing, which involves breathing in for four seconds, holding for four, breathing out for four, and holding for four.

Set yourself up for success

Setting steep goals based on what you think you “should” be doing versus what truly fits in your daily routine is a common occurrence and can actually make it even harder to start a new mindfulness routine.

Instead, try setting yourself up for success by focusing on small, achievable goals you can start right now, Wendt suggests.

“Mindfulness is kind of like a muscle, you have to exercise it slowly. If you want to get into running you don’t just run a marathon tomorrow, you slowly work up to it,” she explains.

Consider setting a goal of meditating once or twice a week for five minutes or starting a gratitude practice on weekend nights before bed.

Work it into your routine

Changing your routine or adding new habits can be hard, and it takes time. The easiest way to start a mindfulness practice is to build it into your existing routine however is feasible, Wendt says.

Maybe that means taking a few deep breaths with your morning cup of coffee or focusing on the way your food tastes at lunch. Maybe it means taking a moment in the shower to just be and enjoy the hot water or noticing the sky, trees and grass around you when you let your dog out.

Whatever slowing down looks like for you, keep in mind that there’s no right or wrong way to start; it’s just about taking time for yourself and acknowledging that, in this stressful year, you’re doing the best you can.

“Slowing down isn’t a cure-all, but it can support and help us. It’s a lovely way to honor ourselves,” Wendt says.

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