Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

In the Moment: Mindfulness emerges as a way to alleviate stress, manage anxiety.

In today’s hectic world, many of us become so consumed by life’s twists and turns that we often look past the moments that are right in front us.

Maybe it’s the commuter so fixated on traffic and the upcoming workday that she misses the day’s unfolding dawn before her on the road.

Maybe it’s the out-of-breath parent rushing a child to practice after a quick meal that neither of them really enjoyed.

Maybe it’s happened to you.

Maybe deep inside, you harbor a gnawing dissatisfaction that your life is missing something, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. You feel sort of like the aimless circle character in Shel Silverstein’s children’s book, “The Missing Piece.”

But really, that so-called “missing piece,” that restless feeling that many of us perceive, may not be as unknowable or unsolvable as we think. A journey of self-discovery may begin with a practice known as mindfulness, and classes are available throughout greater Harrisburg.

So what exactly is mindfulness?

“Mindfulness is a neat kind of thing we already have,” said Timothy Riley, associate vice chair for wellness, Department of Family and Community Medicine at Penn State Hershey. “It’s different from meditation. Meditation is practicing a skill for the mind, like playing scales on an instrument. Mindfulness is when we bring skills we’ve learned in meditation into everyday living.”

Riley began practicing mindfulness on a personal level in 2013, he said, to help level stress he experienced as a private practice physician.

Likewise, Nancy Behney was introduced to mindfulness as a way to help address her own problems, in her case, depression and anxiety. The practice, she recalled, “helped me tremendously.”

“Mindfulness is learning to pay attention to the present moment instead of worrying about the future or feeling stuck thinking about something in the past,” she explained. “There are very real benefits to this, such as decreased anxiety, increase in ability to focus, and coping more effectively with sources of stress and pain.”

Behney was so impressed that she recently completed training to become an instructor. She now teaches a mindfulness course that begins in January at Free Spirit Yoga in Hershey.

“It changed my life,” she said. “It really helped with anxiety. It allowed me to enjoy the moments of life.”

Instructor Shelly Ungemach described mindfulness as increasing people’s ability to “respond rather than react” to stressful situations. Besides reducing anxiety and depression, it can decrease blood pressure, expand one’s attention span, and increase empathy and compassion for others.

“Mindfulness has a wide variety of benefits” Ungemach said. “It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s another tool in our toolbox.”

Since 2013, Ungemach has served as a mindfulness-based stress-reduction facilitator for The Mindfulness Bridge in Palmyra. Her next course begins in January at Free Spirit Yoga in Hershey with Behney.

“Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness causes the same sort of changes to the brain as physical exercise does to the body on a daily basis,” she said.

Michael Hayes, a licensed psychologist, learned about the concept of mindfulness in 2010 when attending training for dialectical treatment therapy. Then, in 2014, work-related stress landed him in the hospital for a couple of days.

“The doctors couldn’t put a finger on it,” Hayes said. “That’s when I decided to put it all together, and my health improved upon practice.”

Today, Hayes serves as an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Penn State Hershey Department of Psychiatry while running a clinical practice at the Penn State Cancer Institute and Penn State Surgery Specialties.

Hayes’ clinical practice is geared to help patients and their families cope with serious health issues, such as a cancer diagnosis or waiting for an organ transplant. This spring, he plans to initiate a mindfulness-based stress reduction program for adult patients diagnosed with cancer, as well as for adults with a loved one diagnosed with cancer.

“We’re really at an exciting place to think carefully about mindfulness,” he said. “It can provide meaningful, positive change for a whole host of things.”

Mindfulness-based courses can be found at places throughout central Pennsylvania. They also begin in early January at Free Spirit Yoga, 1512 E Caracas Ave # 100, Hershey. For information, visit

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