By Kari Gulin, MSW, RSW
Have you ever driven your car and when you arrive at your destination, you have no memory of the drive there? Our thoughts are elsewhere and it can be challenging to focus on what is right in front of us.
Studies confirm that most of us are mentally checked out at least half of the time. As humans, we live most of our lives on autopilot, and approximately 47% (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010) of the time, people are doing just that. We are not focusing on the outside world or what we are doing, instead, we are thinking about something else. We analyze, plan, compare, judge, and reflect on our emotions and experiences. Most of us also spend a lot of time ruminating on what happened in the past and anticipating what might happen in the future. Our minds are always busy trying to make sense of our experiences by filling in missing pieces of information and then replaying the stories it has created, whether or not they are actually true. Even though we may be spending almost half of our day doing this, it is something that continues to make us unhappy.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment (Kabat-Zinn 2013). John Kabat-Zinn describes the practice of mindfulness as putting yourself into “beginner’s mind”, which is a combination of curiosity and acceptance (Kabat-Zinn 2013). It is about observing without criticizing; this means not judging yourself or the thoughts that may be running through your mind.
Mindfulness teaches us to be non-striving – almost everything we do is with a purpose or goal in mind, and this can make it challenging for us to remove judgment from what we are doing.
The goal of mindfulness is to be yourself; to stop what you are doing, and to purposely sit down to an “…interior stillness with no other agenda than to be present for the unfolding of your moments—perhaps for the first time in your adult life.”
When unhappiness or stress linger overhead, rather than taking it all personally, you learn to treat them as if they were drifting through the wind and you were simply observing them come and go. This gives us control of our lives and reminds us that we do not need to grab on to every thought that crosses our mind.
Why is it important?
Research shows that the brain can be trained to increase mindfulness and make healthier habits, even as we get older. The practice of mindfulness is strongly correlated with greater well-being and perceived health (Branstrom, Duncan, Moskowitz 2011)
Most people have thoughts about wanting to change something in their lives, which will finally be the answer they are looking for to “feel okay or be happy”. For example, “If only I were calmer, or more intelligent, or a harder worker, or more this or more that, if only my heart were healthier or my knee were better, then I would be okay. But right now, I am not okay.”
This attitude undermines mindfulness, which involves simply paying attention to whatever is happening. If you are tense, then just pay attention to the tension. If you are in pain, then be with the pain as best you can. If you are criticizing yourself, then observe the activity of the judging mind. Just watch. We are simply allowing anything and everything that we experience from moment to moment to be here, because it already is.
People who practice mindfulness and are consistent, tend to be more aware of their unconscious thoughts and behaviours (Brown, Creswell, & Ryan, 2016). These people are reported to have more control of their thoughts, and the impact it has on their feelings and behaviours. By shifting our attention to acknowledge the present moment, be it the lovely scenery around us, or the warm breeze outside, this can change the way our brains work. Changing what we focus on can have a long-term impact on how our brains function and how resilient we are in the future.
Mindfulness for Anxiety and Depression
Studies have shown that ruminations and worrying can contribute to mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety, and that mindfulness-based interventions are effective in the reduction of both of these (Querstret, Cropley 2013). Our thought patterns can directly contribute to anxiety and depression, especially if we are only focusing our attention on those specific thoughts.
The good news is that by being mindful about what is happening in your body, then we can begin to shift our attention away from our thoughts and into the present moment. This will automatically alter your psychological, emotional, and physical responses to that situation. If you experience an intense emotional reaction to something (i.e. become upset, frustrated, anxious, worried…) and you try to resist or ignore what you are feeling, this will often make it that much more intense. Rather than trying to ignore what you are experiencing or judging yourself for feeling it “too intensely”, it’s important to allow yourself to go through the emotion. Learning to acknowledge what is happening within your body and allowing yourself to be present in that moment is not giving power to the emotion and is allowing it to pass.
How do we do it?
Mindfulness can be done anytime and anywhere; the hardest part is remembering to practice and making it a habit. Being mindful is a conscious process and we have to give ourselves something to pay attention to. Here are some simple mindfulness practices that can easily be integrated into everyday life:
Stop what you are doing and bring your attention to your breath. Inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. As you continue repeating this breathing pattern, increase your sensory awareness. What does the breath look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like? What does it smell like? What does it taste like?
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
Notice how your body is feeling at any given moment. Often we carry tension is certain parts of our body and are not always conscious of this. Start by tensing your hands into fists, hold for 5 seconds, and release. Do you notice a difference? Repeat with any other area of the body (forehead, shoulders, feet..etc)
Choose one routine activity that you will do mindfully- drinking tea, eating, brushing your teeth… Make a decision to do it consciously by being aware of your senses in that specific moment.
Learn more about Kari and how she can help you practice mindfulness in a way that is unique to your needs and life. Contact us today if you’re ready to experience an improvement in your mental health.
- Branstrom, R., Duncan, L. G., & Moskowitz, J. T. (2011). The association between dispositional mindfulness, psychological wellbeing, and perceived health in a Swedish population-based sample. British Journal of Health Psychology, 16(2), 300-316.
- Brown, K. W., Creswell, J. D., & Ryan, R. M. (2016). Handbook of mindfulness: theory, research, and practice. New York: Guilford Press.
- Kabat-Zinn J. Hachette; UK: 2013. Full Catastrophe Living, Revised Edition: How to Cope with Stress, Pain and Illness Using Mindfulness Meditation.
- Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. doi:10.1037/e634112013-170
- Querstret, D., & Cropley, M. (2013). Assessing treatments used to reduce rumination and/or worry: a systematic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 996-1009. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2013.08.004.
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