Most people go through their lives in reaction-mode. They respond to something that happens in their environment – a conversation, a changing traffic light, the boss calling a meeting – but they often aren’t truly aware of the world around them. They can be so focused on the distractions of life that they aren’t actually experiencing life.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “be more mindful” or “be present in your day,” but do you know what that really means? Is it simply paying attention to your surroundings or is there some deeper concept to be explored? Are there benefits to being mindful?
What Does It Mean To Be More Mindful?
Strictly speaking, mindfulness is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”
In practice, being mindful does encompass an awareness of your surroundings, but being present also means to stay focused on the here and now. For example, worrying about a work trip that will happen next week distracts from the joy you might take in playing catch with your son right this minute. Because you are absorbed by something other than playing with your child, you are denying yourself the full experience of being with him.
To be mindful, you might focus on the sound of the ball hitting your glove when you catch a ball he has thrown. You may enjoy the warmth of the sun on your skin or hearing your son exclaim, “yes!” when he catches a difficult toss of the ball. Or, you might listen to a bird chirping in the tree or smell your neighbor’s freshly mown lawn.
When you choose to be mindful, you experience your life more richly instead of just cruising through it.
Benefits Of Staying Present
In today’s high-paced, digital world, slowing down and just taking in the world around you can be challenging. Not many of us are able to fully relax: we’re always thinking of the next task we have to do, checking texts and emails, or planning the next activity. This stressful way of living can lead to health concerns, as well as to emotional and psychological issues.
Mindfulness, however, can:
- Make you happier and feel more peaceful – According to a study by Keng, et al, “mindfulness brings about various positive psychological effects, including increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, and improved behavioral regulation.”
- Help you stay healthier – In a study of HIV-positive patients, an 8-week study on the effects of mindfulness meditation training showed that mindfulness “can buffer CD4+ T lymphocyte declines in HIV-1 infected adults.” Further, a study by Hughes, et al, on the effects of mindfulness in pre-hypertension patients showed a reduction in both diastolic and systolic blood pressure readings as compared with those who only did progressive muscle relaxation exercises.
- Minimize the negative impact of illness – A study by Davidson, et al, showed that an 8-week mindfulness meditation program caused “significant increases in antibody titers to influenza vaccine among subjects in the meditation compared with those in the wait-list control group.”
- Teach you how to regulate emotions through experiencing thoughts as they happen. This allows us to label and categorize these thoughts and emotions instead of letting them become overpowering.
- Improve relationships – A 2016 meta-analysis by McGill, et al, (published in the Journal of Human Sciences and Extension) found that “the association between mindfulness and relationship satisfaction is statistically significant, indicating when an individual is more mindful they are more satisfied in their romantic relationship.”
- Enhance the quality of your sleep – “Sleep disturbances pose a significant medical and public health concern for our nation’s aging population. An estimated 50% of persons 55 years and older have some form of sleep problem, including initiating and maintaining sleep,” according to a 2015 study by Black, et al. This study showed that mindfulness meditation promoted better sleep quality and reduced daytime impairment in older adults who had sleep disturbances.
- Help you eat healthier – Instead of rushing through a fast food lunch at your desk, being mindful of how your food contributes to your health will allow you to reach for more nutritious foods. In fact, choosing to take small bites, chewing your food thoroughly, and savoring the flavors not only reduces stress, a study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says it can also help you lose weight without counting calories.
What Are Some Ways To Be Mindful?
Mindfulness is done by keeping your attention on the present – on what you are experiencing in that particular moment. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you are doing, you simply tune in to the experience of the here and now.
An article from HelpGuide.org says, “You can choose any task or moment to practice informal mindfulness, whether you are eating, showering, walking, touching a partner, or playing with a child or grandchild. Attending to these points will help:
- Start by bringing your attention to the sensations in your body
- Breathe in through your nose, allowing the air downward into your lower belly. Let your abdomen expand fully.
- Now breathe out through your mouth
- Notice the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation
- Proceed with the task at hand slowly and with full deliberation
- Engage your senses fully. Notice each sight, touch, and sound so that you savor every sensation.
- When you notice that your mind has wandered from the task at hand, gently bring your attention back to the sensations of the moment.”
Mindfulness can also be done as part of practices such as yoga, aikido, and tai chi training, as well as being a form of meditation in its own right.
How To Practice Mindfulness For Anxiety
Anxiety is connected to our thoughts and triggered by our reaction to them.
By being mindful, we can learn to calm the emotion behind these thoughts and begin to stop reacting to them.
- Start with focusing on your breathing.
- Zero in on the sensations you feel. Notice the sensation of your breath flowing through your nose and lungs as you inhale and exhale. Feel your chest expand and contract with each breath.
- Notice the room’s temperature, the sounds around you, any smells or fragrances, and your physical reactions (sweating, pulse rate, etc).
- If you have an anxious thought, label it, but don’t get caught up in it or reject it. Instead, think “that is a fearful thought” or “that is a sad thought,” then take 3 deep breaths.
- After taking these breaths, try to gain perspective about the anxious thought. Ask yourself if the worry or fear was valid? Or, was it actually something you might be making bigger than it deserves? Or, could it be that you are jumping to conclusions?
- Experiencing those few seconds of calm as you gain perspective allows you to release the anxious thought, so let it go and focus on your next breath.
- Don’t judge yourself for having anxious thoughts. Once you notice them, simply return your attention to your breathing and repeat these mindfulness steps.
“Practice makes perfect,” as the saying goes. You probably won’t experience a total release of anxiety the first time you try mindfulness, but you should get some relief from your concerns.
If you keep practicing, you will improve over time. Each time you focus on the present, your mind gets a chance to relax so you can see things from a new perspective.
Learn More About Mindfulness
In Getting to Know Anxiety Drs. Rosen and Gross offer readers an overview of today’s challenging mental health issues and the most current treatment methods available, as well as practical strategies for mental and emotional self-care.
If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, we can help. For more information, contact The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida or call us today at 561-496-1094.