What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness refers to being present and aware of what is happening around you. Although mindfulness is an ability we all have, it’s more available and powerful if consciously practiced regularly. Mindfulness requires paying attention to your senses, thoughts, and emotions as they occur, moment by moment. Research shows that mindfulness training can improve the brain’s physical structure.
How common are mindfulness practices?
We are mindful when we are engrossed in what we are doing. It is very common among children as they play. Mindfulness practices are very common in spiritual and wisdom traditions.
Common mindfulness practices include deep breathing, visualization, meditation, yoga, and journaling. Nearly any enjoyable activity using a singular focus can be mindful, such as eating a healthy meal.
Mindfulness prevents anxiety
Mindfulness is effective for anxiety of all forms, including social and performance anxiety, because it can break the thought spiral that leads to distress. Practice mindfulness consistently to improve overall function. View mindfulness as a lifestyle modification.
Mindfulness stops panic attacks
Panic attacks happen when the mind creates physical sensations secondary to mental overwhelm. This can become a loop of physical stress feeding mental stress which seems endless. Mindfulness can be used before a panic attack to bring someone back into the present moment and stop the process. It can also be used during a panic attack to interrupt the sensations and reconnect to the current moment. Unlike an as-needed medication or supplement, mindfulness works without needing to be metabolized first.
What other conditions benefit from mindfulness practices?
Mindfulness is a great adjunct to nearly all therapeutic practices. The practice benefits people who have ADHD or depression. It aids in addiction management and recovery from trauma .
- Mindfulness can help people recognize and challenge negative self-talk and catastrophizing.
- It keeps people from focusing on the past by returning the focus to the current moment.
- Being mindful improves frontal lobe function, increasing the ability to manage hyperactive behaviors and focus.
- In addictive behaviors, mindfulness can help battle impulsive urges to use and refocus the mind to prevent relapse.
- Mindfulness strategies can interrupt intrusive re-experiencing, such as flashbacks. When someone is experiencing an intrusive memory, feeling numb or disconnected, a mind-body exercise can reconnect them physically to themselves and encourage a feeling of current safety by distancing the experience.
Limitations of mindfulness
Although mindfulness is simple and effective, it will not treat everything. Mindfulness works well in anxiety, panic, depression, ADHD, addiction, and trauma disorders, but in severe cases, it may need to be used in conjunction with other forms of treatment. If someone cannot function in daily life or is considering hurting themself or others, a medical provider should be immediately consulted to seek additional options. In conditions resulting in significant brain matter changes like stroke, toxic exposure, long-term alcoholism, Parkinson’s, or dementia, mindfulness has limited use.
Mindfulness practices will not effectively treat mood swings in cycling mood disorders such as bipolar disorder nor significantly improve the social function in personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder. It also has a limited impact on psychosis, hallucinations, or delusions, as is sometimes seen in schizophrenia or delirium. However, a consistent mindfulness practice can encourage anyone with any condition to become more aware of an emotion, recognize thought patterns contributing to distress, and regulate the physical manifestations of stress.
Incorporating mindfulness is very simple to start. To become more mindful immediately, make small adjustments in your daily activities to limit distractions and attempts to multitask. Most humans become more technology-driven over time, which impacts the ability to be present in everyday experiences. If you are not present in the moment, you are missing out on it.
- When eating dinner on the weekend, sit down, stay off of technology, and enjoy your food bite by bite.
- When speaking with someone, do not scroll on your phone or check your email; just focus on that person.
- When walking the dog, stop listening to music and appreciate the weather instead.
Small steps like this increase mindfulness and enable you to find small periods of joy daily.
Slowing down and being more present in every moment will enable you to recognize your own thoughts and emotions. Observe this process and yourself without being harsh or attempting to force change. Simply recognize what or how you feel with a sense of curiosity instead of aggressively trying some type of correction.
This style of emotional awareness teaches the skill of recognition. You simply observe and then choose whether or not to respond. It helps rid unconscious habits. which grows stronger over time. Emotion recognition is the first step to emotional and behavioral freedom.
Be more present
Great ways to practice present-moment awareness include learning to cook or garden, journaling about your thoughts and feelings without distraction for several minutes daily, beginning meditation or daily deep breathing, or incorporating more intentional self-care processes at home. Remember that mindfulness relies on the mind-body connection, so taking care of your body helps with taking care of your mind.
When you lose focus, and your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath without being harsh or judgmental. This is a great time to make small changes to your posture, recognize feelings of hunger or thirst, or notice your environment.
This practice can make you aware of these feelings and thoughts if you are stressed. Observe and pay attention to how this affects your feelings or how you typically respond today. Mindfulness allows you to be aware and make choices rather than just respond automatically. Mindfulness empowers you.
Box Breathing Exercise
To try box breathing, sit comfortably in a quiet space, close your eyes and rest a moment. Then, practice 6 deliberate breath rotations focusing on breathing. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold for 4 seconds before repeating the inhale.
The Five Senses Exercise
This exercise is helpful in episodic situations, such as a panic attack or reexperiencing a trauma memory. It will help bring you back into your body and situation. It can be followed with the box breathing exercise to significantly reduce physical stress. (Some people carry peppermints or lemon candy to help practice this exercise at school or work.)
To use this, simply describe the following in this order:
- 5 things you can see (white wall, green couch, bright sunshine).
- 4 things you can feel (warm sunshine, flat chair behind your back).
- 3 things you can hear (car door slamming outside, dog snoring).
- 2 things you can smell (peppermint lip balm, shampoo).
- 1 thing you can taste (cinnamon gum).
For further research, several widely available options are listed below.
Resources for more information
- Book: Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke
- Book: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Free Application: Insight Timer
- Neuroscience Podcast: The Huberman Lab Podcast
- Locate Mental Health Professionals: PsychologyToday.com