When you think about your life, what comes to mind? Do you reflect on your job, on how your day and week is largely structured around it? Perhaps you think about your family members and how your interactions with them affect your mood. But how often do you think about how you think?
Mindfulness is one way that we can examine how we think about our patterns of thinking. This skill helps us to change how we think. Contrary to some misconceptions, mindfulness is not a religious ritual or a belief system. While some of its origins come from the Eastern cultures, mindfulness has found its way into Western spheres of thought and practice. Some of its techniques even mirror modern day cognitive therapy.
You may ask yourself why mindfulness matters in our 21st century culture. Consider this: According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress can cause a variety of mental and physical health problems, such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure, and heart disease1.
While it’s true that we can’t change some of the circumstances in our life, we can change how we think about them. This doesn’t mean we need to be happy about things that upset us in our life, but we can look at such events more objectively and have a calmer, more accepting attitude. Research also shows that mindfulness can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression2.
There are hundreds of books and articles about the origin and techniques of mindfulness, but I will highlight some of the most common techniques and concepts. In short, mindfulness means paying attention to something in the present moment, and refraining from trying to change the situation around us. Remember, mindfulness takes practice and time, and results may not come right away.
- Breathing: We all do this, but we often change how we breathe based on how we think and feel. If we are angry or nervous, we tend to breathe quickly into our lungs. If we are tired or falling asleep, we breathe from our diaphragm. To practice mindful breathing, take a slow, deep breath into your diaphragm, hold it for a few seconds, and slowly release it. Repeat this process for a few minutes, and pay attention to this pattern of breathing. Your body will naturally calm itself and put you in a more relaxed state of mind.
- Body scanning: We tend to hold stress in different areas of our body, but because our attention is often used for other tasks, it’s easy to overlook cues our body sends us. To practice this technique, sit comfortably in a chair, and close your eyes. Allow your attention to start from the bottom of your feet. Can you focus on the feeling of your socks or the hardness of the ground? Allow your attention to slowly drift up your body. What are you feeling in your ankles? Do your lower legs feel tense? Can you feel the sensation of your upper legs against the chair? You can do this with all areas of your body, from head to toe. The key is to observe sensations in your body without judging them as good or bad. When you first do this, resist the temptation to “fix” the pain you may feel. You may be pleasantly surprised that sometimes, just examining how you feel will allow your bodily sensation to pass.
- Five senses: This skill involves paying attention to our sensations based on our five senses. For example, if you are outside on a summer’s day, you can find a comfortable place to observe your surroundings. Listen to each sound you hear: the wind blowing in the trees, the birds singing in the distance, the sound of cars passing by. How does the sun feel on your skin? What smells do you notice? Are you able to pay attention to the colors and shapes in the leaves? If you choose to take a drink of cold water, can you pay attention to its taste? These techniques can be done anywhere, such as the mall or your office. The point is to become comfortable noticing your senses. Doing so can help you appreciate the moment rather than judging it or worrying about other things.
- Thought monitoring: From my experience, this is perhaps the most difficult technique to practice and become comfortable with. It involves simply monitoring your thoughts and feelings as they come up, and not attempting to judge or stop them. Your thoughts and feelings will arise, settle, and pass. If you are new to this approach, it can be unsettling to become aware of something you typically don’t notice. But with practice, the approach can improve your awareness and allow you greater freedom from your thoughts. To practice thought monitoring, sit in a comfortable position in a quiet area with your eyes closed. Allow your mind to become still and free of any concerns that you are having. As you relax and allow the darkness and quiet to envelop you, some thoughts and feelings will arise. Notice them without judging or attempting to change them, and allow your mind to return to calmness. If you need a little more grounding to help you return to a state of calmness, you can use mindful breathing. These videos can help you practice this concept.3,4
Mindfulness takes practice, and it’s something that many, including myself, struggle to incorporate into daily life. Like any technique, it takes a commitment to make it a regular skill that we use in our normal daily function. The good news is that you are probably using mindfulness already, and you may not be aware of it. The choice is yours as to how much mindfulness you will incorporate into your life. If you choose to be more mindful in your life, you may be pleasantly surprised at how much peace and calmness you will find.
Leonard Street Counseling Center