First of all, what is mindfulness? Is it the same as meditation? Do I have to do yoga in order to meditate? What if I don’t like yoga or meditation? Can I still practice mindfulness? And what’s the big deal about it anyway – why do I keep hearing so much about the importance of mindfulness?
So many questions…..
Mindfulness is defined as the practice of being present at the moment, on purpose, and without judgment. Mindfulness is about noticing what is: that includes distractions, thoughts, and feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant. By being mindful, we anchor our minds in the present time and try to keep the mind from rewinding to the past or fast-forwarding to the future.
Keeping our minds anchored in the “right now” helps to decrease anxiety and increase our positive coping skills.
Sounds easy right? But mindfulness can be quite challenging, especially at first, because our thoughts naturally will always interrupt us. And keep interrupting us! People might feel they’re doing something “wrong” because their thoughts continue to interrupt and distract them while they’re practicing mindfulness. It’s important to recognize that this is normal and expected. It happens to all of us. We just need to avoid judging ourselves, acknowledge the thoughts, and then return to our breath and the exercises. With continued practice, this becomes easier and we become more aware of the benefits we’re reaping from engaging in mindfulness.
And there are many benefits, including:
- Deactivation of the nervous system – interrupting the fight/flight/freeze reactions that are brought on by intense emotions, anxiety and stress.
- Better ability to manage stress and intense emotions.
- Increased feelings of peace and mental resilience.
- Improvements in sleep, immune system functioning, chronic pain, blood pressure, and other physical ailments.
- Especially effective for those with depression, anxiety, Borderline Personality Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and other mental health conditions.
Alright, so mindfulness is really great for the body and brain. How do we do it? Well, fortunately, mindfulness can be practiced in many ways, such as:
- Meditation: the act of remaining in a silent and calm state so that you are more able to deal with the problems of everyday life (https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/meditation). Meditation can be done through a yoga practice or on your own. For me, meditation usually involves putting on a “Yoga with Adriene” video and letting Adriene’s voice guide me to relaxation through breathing techniques. Others practice on their own – get your body into a comfortable position and just breathe! Focus on the sound of your breath and when any thoughts come up, recognize them and let them pass as you return to focusing on the sound of your breath. Keep your eyes open or closed, depending on your comfort level. 5-10 minutes is a reasonable amount of time when you’re just starting out.
- Mindful Walk: I’ve had clients who experienced trauma or those with PTSD who found it terrifying to close their eyes and not only be physically alone, but alone with their thoughts. For people who don’t feel comfortable or able to do a traditional meditation, I would recommend a mindful walk or even sitting on a bench and observing the outside world through your 5 senses. For example, use your eyes to really take in what’s around you. Notice trees, flowers, animals and people nearby and focus on the details. Use your ears to listen for the wind blowing, the sound of leaves rustling, dogs barking or even traffic noise. Use your nose to smell flowers blooming, the scent of rain in the air or even someone’s dryer running as you pass their house. Use your sense of touch to notice the sensation of the wind blowing through your hair or the warmth of the sun on your skin. (Or in our Saskatchewan winters, the sensation of your skin freezing off!). Taste might be achieved through sipping a drink, sucking on a candy or chewing gum. As always, our thoughts will try to intrude and interrupt, but just acknowledge the thoughts and continue with the exercise.
- Grounding Exercises: Such as the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise outlined in a previous blog post (3 Skills to Help Manage Anxiety & Regulate Emotions). There are many grounding exercises available online and all are designed to help us keep our mind anchored in the “right now.” Usually these exercises involve using any or all of the 5 senses to see, hear, touch, taste or feel something. The key is to really focus your attention on whatever sense you’re utilizing to get the full experience.
- Object Observation: This exercise calls for nothing but an object and your attention. Pick up an object; it might be a picture or knick-knack. It might be a rock or crystal. It might be a leaf from outside. The idea is to hold the object in your hand and notice every tiny detail over a 5-minute period. Pretend you’re seeing the object for the first time as you notice the details (colors, textures, how it feels in your hand, the shape and pattern).
- Self-compassion Exercise: Do a short self-care activity. Maybe this is painting your nails, taking 20 minutes out to listen to some relaxing music or a podcast, watch a funny video or show, have a bath, light some candles and journal, enjoy a cup of tea while reading a chapter in a book. Whatever activity you choose, pay attention to it from start to finish. Whenever your thoughts wander, recognize that they’ve wandered and return to the activity, giving it your full attention.
I also want to acknowledge that these exercises can be tough. It takes practice and effort to try to put aside your thoughts and the pressing matters of the day and just be still. In today’s world, multi-tasking is not only necessary, it is celebrated. It can be tough to break away from the mentality that we must keep frantically moving from one task to the next to accomplish everything on our never-ending to-do lists. The faster you work, the less you accomplish, it seems. It’s a real hamster wheel.
For me personally, I found it very hard to take this time out in the beginning, especially when it seemed I wasn’t really doing anything. Over time, however, I have come to know so many benefits from mindfulness activities. If I haven’t practiced in a while, it feels like my body and mind start to crave it. And then when I do practice, I can feel my body and mind surrender and it’s so obvious that I need to continue making the time because I need it.
It’s like exercise….you kind of dread it, but once you make the decision and follow through, you feel so much better afterward.