By Rebecca Phillips, Washington State Magazine

Imagine sitting on a park bench waiting for a friend. You’re checking messages on your phone when a noise catches your attention. You look up and suddenly realize it’s a beautiful autumn day. The sun is warm on your skin and a gentle breeze tempers the heat.

From a nearby tree, birds call while a few golden leaves flutter, break loose, and slowly drift to the ground. On the grass, a parade of tiny black ants drags a bread crumb. Traffic passes in the distance. Quiet voices chat and laugh.

The scene is a simple example of mindfulness, and your brain loves it, especially during times of stress.

Typically, thoughts jump around like a game of hopscotch — fretting about this, remembering that, planning ahead to something else. Pile on the stress and there goes your ability to focus.

Tracy Skaer in profile against an abstract background
Tracy Skaer

“With mindfulness, we basically set aside our concerns of the day and cultivate an awareness of the present moment,” says pharmacotherapy professor Tracy Skaer at Washington State University Spokane.

“In our fast-moving, constantly-changing world, we have to retrain people how to do it,” she says.

Skaer is a trained mindfulness practitioner who works with a team of nursing and medical faculty to help patients dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, chronic pain and other conditions.

Although medication can be helpful, Skaer says it’s not the end-all, especially with chronic illness.

“Patient-centered care and taking part in treating your illness help you gain more ground in overcoming problems,” she says. “You can’t just go to the doctor and get a pill; you’ve got to get to the root cause.”

When that root cause is an overactive amygdala and shrinking prefrontal cortex, mindfulness can help. Within just a few weeks, mindfulness training can rebalance the brain and build protective resilience against stress.

Skaer says the differences are notable. People react more calmly to the small stresses of everyday life, and recover more quickly from major ones. In many cases, patients report better sleep, lower blood pressure and enhanced ability to cope with pain.

“So often people end up suffering at home instead of getting the help of an interdisciplinary healthcare team, which includes yourself,” she says.

“Take charge of your illness or stress. Maybe you can get an app with nature sounds to help you fall asleep at night. Or take a tai chi or yoga class. When you compassionately tune into yourself and others, it reduces the need for medication as well as the risk of side effects.”

A few of Skaer’s tips for reducing harmful stress:

  • Take care of yourself and maintain a healthy body through adequate rest and exercise. Walking is great and so are short power naps.
  • Eat a healthy diet with nutrient-rich foods. Stay hydrated. Reduce excess carbohydrates.
  • Cultivate a stress-free mindset by letting go of judgment and negative thought patterns. Become more mindful and optimistic.
  • Give your brain a nature break. Watch the squirrels outside the window.
  • Laugh often — even fake laughter reduces stress.
  • Seek out helpful therapies like massage and acupuncture, which can improve sleep and reduce stress, pain and tension.
  • Enroll in anger or stress management classes if needed.

(This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Washington State Magazine)