By Dr. Mercola
In a survey of the most-hated chores in the US, washing dishes ranks near the top. Only cleaning the bathroom was more despised than doing the dishes, for kids and adults alike.1
Yet, this simple, mundane activity can offer you actual therapeutic benefits, provided you adopt the right mindset before doing it. The key is to wash your dishes mindfully, which has the power to turn a detested chore into a powerful stress reliever.
Why Doing Your Chores Mindfully May Be Good for Your Mental Health
Unless you're one of the privileged few with full-time help around the house, you're going to find yourself faced with chores… often.
You can begrudge those chores and do them in a frantic, anxious state, perhaps while fretting over all the other responsibilities (work deadlines, dinner, homework help, etc.) you have to get done as well.
However, this will only serve to increase your overall state of anxiety. On the other hand, you can choose to do your chores, like washing dishes, mindfully, which can offer your racing mind some much-needed respite.
Practicing "mindfulness" means you're actively paying attention to the moment you're in right now. Rather than letting your mind wander, when you're mindful, you're living in the moment and letting distracting thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications.
You can add mindfulness to virtually any aspect of your day simply by paying attention to the sensations you are experiencing in the present moment. Techniques sometimes used to become more mindful include:2
- Paying focused attention to an aspect of sensory experience, such as the sound of your own breathing
- Distinguishing between simple thoughts and those that are elaborated with emotion (such as "I have a test tomorrow" versus "What if I fail my test tomorrow and flunk my entire class?")
- Reframing emotional thoughts as simply "mental projections" so your mind can rest
Read This Mindfulness Passage Before Washing Your Dishes…
In the case of washing dishes, researchers from Florida State University (FSU) had 51 students read either a "descriptive" dishwashing passage or a "mindfulness" dishwashing passage prior to carrying out the chore. The mindfulness message read, in part, as follows:3
"While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes. This means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly. Why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that's precisely the point.
The fact that I am standing there and washing is a wondrous reality. I'm being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There's no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves."
The study's lead author noted a particular interest in how the mundane activities in life could be "used to promote a mindful state and, thus, increase overall sense of well-being."
And it turned out that by washing dishes mindfully – focusing on the smell of the soap, the feeling of the warm water, and touching the dishes – led to significant improvements in well-being.4
Specifically, the mindful group increased their feelings of inspiration by 25 percent while lowering their level of nervousness by 27 percent.5 The "descriptive" control group experienced no such benefits.
The implications of the study are vast, as it suggests applying mindfulness to virtually any common activity might serve as a simple way to reduce stress and improve your mental health.
Another Often-Overlooked Benefit to Washing Dishes By Hand…
While this doesn't apply to your mental health, it's worth noting that washing your dishes might be good for your physical health as well. In a study of more than 1,000 Swedish children, those with increased microbial exposure were less likely to develop allergies… and this included potential exposure through hand-washed dishes.6
In households where dishes were always washed by hand, rates of allergies in the children were half those from households that used dishwashers. The children using hand-washed dishes were less likely to develop eczema, asthma, and hay fever. According to the researchers:
"We speculate that a less-efficient dishwashing method may induce tolerance via increased microbial exposure."
On the other hand, because dishwashers use very hot water (water typically too hot for human touch), they kill far more germs, and leave your dishes cleaner, than ordinary hand washing.7 Ironically, this purported benefit may actually be a disservice to your health.
Mindfulness Can Calm Nerves at School and Work
Mindfulness is a technique that offers benefits virtually anywhere you apply it. So you can certainly harness it while doing chores around your home… but don't stop there.
For instance, mindfulness programs are popping up at schools and workplaces across the globe to help students and employees manage stress and anger and improve focus.
"Mindful Schools" is one such program. It has trained close to 10,000 adults across all 50 US states and more than 100 countries to conduct mindfulness programs that impact more than 300,000 children and adolescents.8
At Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland, for instance, students can take part in an after-school program to learn mindfulness through a series of breathing exercises, yoga poses, and meditation. Principal Carlillian Thompson told Medicine Net:9
"I started to see a difference in the students' behaviors… Instead of fighting or lashing out, they started using words to solve their problems. Those students who began in the program, who are now middle-school students, are very successful, and they come back and participate in the program also."
To date, research has shown mindfulness training leads to a number of benefits among children and adolescents, including:10
- Improvements in attention and social skills
- Decreased test anxiety
- Drops in aggressive behavior among adolescents with a series of antisocial behaviors known as conduct disorder
- Improved classroom behavior, such as paying attention, self-control, participation in activities, and caring and respect for others
Further, in a study of college students who took either a mindfulness class or a nutrition class for two weeks, those who took the mindfulness class improved reading-comprehension test scores and working-memory capacity, as well as experienced fewer distracting thoughts.11 Researchers noted:
"Improvements in performance following mindfulness training were mediated by reduced mind wandering among participants who were prone to distraction at pretesting. Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences."
Employers Reaping the Benefits of Mindfulness Programs
Companies such as Google, Target, General Mills, and Aetna have eight-week "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction" programs to lower employees' stress levels, increase resiliency, and boost productivity.
Aetna has estimated that such programs, including meditation and yoga classes, increased employee productivity by 62 minutes each, per week, which they report is worth $3,000 per employee annually.12
To date, more than 22,000 companies have completed the eight-week mindfulness program, and some sports teams, including in the NFL, are using mindfulness training, too. One of the best aspects of mindfulness is that, apart from the initial training, it can be done anywhere without any "equipment" or "tools." Ali Smith, who helped develop a mindfulness training program for school children, explained to Medicine Net:13
"You don't need props or supplies, just a person with a desire to practice… Once you equip a child with these tools, no matter how chaotic their external environment is, they can find a place inside them that's quiet and calm and peaceful."
Of course, this sentiment holds true for adults, too. Mindfulness training has even been found to reduce levels of stress-induced inflammation, which could benefit people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma.14
How to Become More Mindful
You can certainly take a professionally organized mindfulness training program. However if you haven't, you can still become more mindful in your daily life. Ideally, start out your day with a mindfulness "exercise," such as focusing on your breathing for five minutes before you get out of bed. Focus on the flow of your breath and the rise and fall of your belly. 15 This can help you to stay better focused for the rest of the day.
As the day goes on, try to minimize multi-tasking, as this is the opposite of mindfulness. If you find yourself trying to complete five tasks at once, stop yourself and focus your attention back to the task at hand. If emotionally distracting thoughts enter your head, remind yourself that these are only "projections," not reality, and allow them to pass by without stressing you out.
As Mindful.org explains, "Recognize that thoughts are simply thoughts; you don't need to believe them or react to them."16 Throughout your day, also notice what you're doing in any given moment and tune in to your senses while doing so. When you're eating, for instance, focus on your food and take the time to chew, taste, and savor each bite that goes into your mouth. Being mindful when you eat forces you to slow down and makes you feel more connected and involved in your eating experience. Additional tips for being mindful, published in Visions Journal, include:17
When you are walking, tune into how your weight shifts and the sensations in the bottom of your feet. Focus less on where you are headed. Don't feel that you need to fill up all your time with doing. Take some time to simply be. When your mind wanders to thinking, gently bring it back to your breath. Notice how the mind likes to constantly judge. Don't take it seriously. It's not who you are. Practice listening without making judgments. Notice where you tend to zone out (e.g., driving, emailing, or texting, web surfing, feeding the dog, doing dishes, brushing teeth, etc.). Practice bringing more awareness to that activity. Spend time in nature.
What Else Works for Ongoing Stress Relief and Well-Being?
Mindfulness training, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises… all of these techniques can help you wade through the daily stressors that life brings your way. But as they say, "different strokes for different folks." What you do for stress relief is a personal choice, as your stress-management techniques must appeal to you and, more importantly, work for you. If a round of kickboxing helps you get out your frustration, then do it. If a long soak in the tub is more your speed, that's fine too.
Even having a good cry now and then may be beneficial, as tears that are shed due to an emotional response, such as sadness or extreme happiness, contain a high concentration of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) — a chemical linked to stress. One theory of why you cry when you're sad is that it helps your body release some of these excess stress chemicals, thereby helping you feel more calm and relaxed.
Energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) can be very effective as well, by helping you to actually reprogram your body's reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life. This is important as, generally speaking, a stressor becomes a problem when:
- Your response to it is negative
- Your feelings and emotions are inappropriate for the circumstances
- Your response lasts an excessively long time
- You're feeling continuously overwhelmed, overpowered, or overworked
When you use EFT, simple tapping with the fingertips is used to input kinetic energy onto specific meridians on your head and chest while you think about your specific problem – whether it is a traumatic event, an addiction, pain, etc. – and voice positive affirmations. This combination of tapping the energy meridians and voicing positive affirmation works to clear the "short-circuit" – the emotional block – from your body's bioenergy system, thus restoring your mind and body's balance, which is essential for optimal health and the healing of chronic stress. You can view a demonstration below.
While the video above will easily teach you how to do EFT, it is very important to realize that self-treatment for serious issues is not recommended. For serious or complex issues, you need an experienced practitioner to guide you through the process, as there is an incredible art to it; it typically takes years of training to develop the skill to tap on deep-seated, significant issues.