During the winter, many older adults experience a decrease in their moods and an increase in their stress levels due to isolation and cold, dark days. For those in need of a boost to their mental and physical health, mindfulness and relaxation techniques can infuse difficult times with resiliency and inner light. Let's explore how winter mindfulness for older adults could help.
Mindfulness is a type of meditation that helps people become more aware of how their minds and bodies are feeling.
Mindfulness has surprising wellness benefits, such as reducing chronic illness, alleviating sadness, and improving relationships.
There are many helpful mindfulness tools, like meditation, mind-body exercises, breathing techniques, and spiritual practices.
Winter mindfulness for older adults can be a powerful tool for relieving winter blues and holiday stress.
What is mindfulness?
The essence of mindfulness is practicing presence—the awareness of where we are, what we're doing, and how we feel at any moment. We often live divided in body and mind, tempted to ignore our inner selves and physical messages from our bodies. We find ourselves hoping problems will simply dissolve away.
This lack of connection with our true selves and ignoring problems impacts our physical health. It causes underlying stress that becomes chronic. Abundant evidence shows that chronic stress is a root cause of many chronic illnesses.
According to studies on older adults, mindfulness is a powerful tool for improving overall well-being, also known as holistic wellness, which combines physical, mental, social, and spiritual health. Mindfulness can reconnect one's body and mind, yielding impressive results despite the increased losses associated with aging.
The main benefit is that it calms the body and mind, which lowers stress. Your body goes from the constant "fight or flight" response to the calm "parasympathetic" state. This lets it heal instead of stress.
As winter settles in, these mindfulness tools may offer the same potent benefits for conquering mild winter blues and alleviating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Mindfulness health benefits
As people get older, they go through many changes, increasing sadness when losses add up. Research has shown that mindfulness tools can help older people feel better physically and mentally by lowering their stress, loneliness, and sadness.
A study published in 2019 in the journal BMC Geriatrics notes that mindfulness practice reduces worry and stress while improving systemic inflammation, cognition, mental well-being, awareness, and sleep. They also note that research shows older people who practice mindfulness feel stronger and more capable of completing tasks and reaching goals, something psychologists call self-efficacy.
The people in the study said that being in a mindfulness training group helped them in many ways. They said they felt calmer, relaxed, and less critical of themselves or others. Many participants felt more in the present, more disciplined, and better able to deal with the problems that come up in life. Some people also had more peace of mind and less anger and tension. The people in the group even said their marriages got better.
Overall, the writers report that "participants stated that the main benefits of mindfulness included less stress, better sleep, positive changes in their outlook on life, better relationships, and a stronger connection with the community."
Another article published in the journal Clinics in Geriatrics Medicine notes that mindfulness has shown improvements in serious chronic conditions like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson's disease, chronic pain, heart disease, posttraumatic stress disorder, and urge urinary incontinence. These results are likely due to a calmer nervous system from practicing mindfulness.
17 simple mindfulness tools
To use mindfulness in your daily life, it is best to learn from a trained coach or practitioner. According to the BMC Geriatrics study, having the help of a trained professional is a big plus. Mindfulness is safe and easy to do on your own, but having a coach who is supportive and encouraging improves the results and participation of the subjects.
Here are some powerful mindfulness tools to get you through the winter.
Mindfulness and relaxation meditations
There are many types of meditation:
- Typically, mindfulness meditations are simpler than other traditional meditative exercises and train your mind and body to be present in the moment.
- On the other hand, relaxing meditations focus on calming the nervous system to restore peace in the mind and body.
One can meditate for a few minutes or more than an hour. Generally, the more you practice, the greater the benefits.
Here are a few exercises that you can learn with an online video, an app, or a trained practitioner:
- Mindfulness meditations. These practices help you notice and accept the present moment without judging it. One type that is often used in research studies is mindfulness-based stress reduction to calm the nervous system. Doctors developed MBSR to help people with chronic pain and stress-related disorders. Mindfulness techniques, such as yoga and meditation, are often used together to help people become more aware of their body's sensations, thoughts, emotions, and surroundings.
- Gratitude meditation. It encourages you to concentrate on what you feel grateful for.
- Transcendental meditation. This meditation includes silently repeating mantras or words, like "peace," “this, not that," or the traditional “om.”
- Guided imagery. It may help reduce stress and beat the winter blues by focusing your mind on mental images, such as your favorite beach, forest, or calming environment.
- Inner smile meditation. It can boost inner happiness and compassion by mentally letting a smile soak throughout your body. You can meditate on the general feeling of a smile or picture someone you trust and love smiling at you, letting the smile cascade over you from your head to your toes. Some practitioners use it to feel God smiling at them, reminding them of the goodness and abundance of the divine.
- Non-sleep deep rest (NSDR). It originates from the yoga practice called yoga nidra. Some people call NSDR a body scan with the goal of relaxation and a calmer nervous system.
There are many different breathing exercises to relax or energize the body. Relaxation breathing triggers the vagus nerve to calm the body by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Dr. Andrew Weil, an expert in integrative medicine, developed the popular breathing technique known as 4-7-8 breathing. With ancient roots in yoga, this exercise teaches you to focus on your breathing to slow it down. To practice 4-7-8 breathing, try these steps:
- Inhale through your nose for four seconds.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth for eight seconds, working to empty your lungs.
One easy way to slow down your breathing is to take long, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Doing this throughout the day will calm your mind and body. It will also train you to breathe more through your nose than your mouth. Too much mouth breathing can activate your body’s fight or flight response, increasing your sense of stress and aggravating chronic and autoimmune diseases.
You can learn many stress-reducing breathing exercises online or with a trained practitioner.
Mindfulness with nature
Grounding yourself in nature can significantly boost your health. Getting outside in the winter is challenging for many older adults. Still, even five minutes in the sun or the cool breeze boosts your mood and triggers your vagus nerve to calm the body.
Here are two mindful outdoor activities to try:
- Forest bathing. This outdoor activity in the forest can be done with a simple walk or sitting on a park bench where nature sounds are more prevalent than human sounds. Mindfulness occurs when one uses their senses to focus on the forest's sights, smells, sounds, and physical sensations. Studies suggest forest bathing may reduce rates of cancer, anxiety, depression, and heart disease.
- Gazing at the sky. Researchers refer to this practice as "skychology," and they believe that gazing at the sky and mindfully focusing on what you see, hear, and feel can lower stress, sharpen focus, lessen one's fixation on personal issues, and improve life satisfaction.
More and more research is being done on the mental and physical benefits of mind-body exercise. Mindfulness-based practices like these help you connect with your body again by combining slow movements or poses with conscious breathing.
Increasing numbers of older adults are practicing mind-body practices like:
- Tai chi
Joining a local group for these practices enhances one's social connections and helps get you out of the house, two essential factors for lifting the winter blues.
Traditionally, spirituality includes practices that connect your deeper self to something greater or bigger than yourself, usually a divine source.
Through these actions, you can strengthen that connection:
- Centering prayer or meditating on sacred texts.
- Memorization and recitation of a poem, sacred text, or transformative quote.
- Gratitude journaling about what one is thankful for and possibly writing a thank-you note to people who come to mind.
Being mindful during the holidays can help you deal with holiday stress and may even help you avoid gaining weight:
- Mindful eating. This means taking your time with each bite and drink during a meal. At this intentional pace, experts recommend simply enjoying the food and the people you are with, rather than multi-tasking with your computer, TV, or phone. Mindful eating can help you recognize when you are getting full and when to stop eating.
Mindful cooking and crafting are similar. To practice this, one cooks or completes a craft in silence, focusing only on the task at hand instead of doing other tasks at the same time, like listening to a podcast or talking on the phone. This helps you become more aware of what your body feels and what your mind wants to think about.
At first, these mindfulness tools may feel awkward and hard to use, but after a while, they help clear your mind, focus, and relax. Thoughts and feelings get more interesting and fun as you accept yourself more. This change can increase your enjoyment of being alone and help you accept and appreciate the people around you.
- BMC Geriatrics. A qualitative study of older adults’ perspectives on initiating exercise and mindfulness practice.
- Translational Psychiatry. Mindfulness improves inflammatory biomarker levels in older adults with mild cognitive impairment: a randomized controlled trial.
- Clinics in Geriatric Medicine. Mindfulness, Stress, and Aging.
- American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. Mindful Eating: Principles and Practice.
- Aging and Mental Health. Effects of mindfulness meditation interventions on depression in older adults: A meta-analysis.