What is Mindfulness?
What’s a single practice that’s been credited with reducing anxiety, treating depression, decreasing implicit age and race bias and increasing body satisfaction? Mindfulness.
Mindfulness encourages people to pay attention to the present moment, acknowledging and accepting their thoughts and sensations, without making judgments. It can help to heighten awareness of our emotional, cognitive, and physical experiences.
In all its forms of practice — yoga, meditation, breathwork among them — mindfulness has grown in popularity over the last decade and can be found in a wide array of settings, from schools to hospitals to corporate boardrooms. One survey found a threefold increase between 2012 and 2017 in the number of American adults who meditate, a form of mindfulness practice. Apps like Headspace have gained millions over users in over 190 countries. Adult coloring books, a mindful activity, have become trendy; 12 million were sold in 2015.
Why the growing interest? Evidence supports the effectiveness of mindfulness for conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain, and hypertension. Mindfulness has even been used to combat job burnout in teachers and high-performance healthcare professionals. The Lazar Lab, a Harvard-based research team studying the impacts of meditation and yoga, suggests that meditation may alter the actual structure of our brain. For example, it can cause changes in the hippocampus that increase our ability to tolerate stress. Similarly, practicing mindfulness may prevent the thinning of the frontal cortex, which aids perspective-taking, memory, and self-regulation.
Mindfulness could be a helpful tool in your wellness toolbox. There are several ways to cultivate this practice.
How to practice mindfulness:
1. Take time to savor positive moments and sensations
Even when we are doing something that we love, such as going on vacation, negative thoughts might distract us from the experience. How often have thoughts about family issues, returning to work, or anticipating the end of a positive experience clouded your time off?
Mindfulness helps us make the most out of those positive experiences by focusing on the present moment, rather than on negative thoughts about the past or future. Next time you’re doing something you enjoy, like dancing with friends or reading a good book, pause and reflect on everything you’re experiencing.
Mindfulness and sensory engagement go hand in hand. Eating a delicious meal, smelling a new candle, or petting a furry dog are all great opportunities to be mindful. Explore every nuance of what you’re feeling. You may notice things you’ve never acknowledged before.
2. Take a break from your to-do list
With so many things on our plates, it can be uncomfortable to take time off. Often, our thoughts are preoccupied with future obligations, and we might feel anxious about taking a moment to disengage.
Yet taking breaks actually makes us more productive in the long run. Certain tricks can help you feel more comfortable with taking time off. You might choose to time your break, or to tell yourself, “I will give myself this time to get in touch with the present. This will help me in the long run. I know I will start working hard again at X time.”
You may also be more comfortable engaging in active mindfulness rather than silent meditation. Many people choose mindfulness activities that gently engage the senses, such as cooking, gardening, or playing with clay. Any activity that facilitates attention to the here and now, what you’re seeing, feeling, hearing, etc, can be mindful.
3. Observe the present with acceptance
Practicing mindfulness means observing experiences with an attitude of openness. Rather than labeling an emotion as good or bad, mindfulness observes an experience as it is in the present moment, without comparison or judgment.
This can take practice. Many of us have been trained to think of certain emotions, like anger or sadness, as bad. In reality, these emotions all serve an important purpose. When we approach them mindfully — with curiosity rather than opinion — we lessen their control over our thoughts and behavior. For example, you may frequently feel impatient with a boss who takes a long time to explain things. Your typical response is to get frustrated and cut him off. Over time, this behavior becomes unexamined and automatic. In applying a mindfulness approach to the same scenario, you might observe the impatience from a neutral stance (“Hmm, I’m noticing I’m impatient, I wonder why”) and decide you don’t have to react to it. You may even experiment with letting your boss finish speaking, knowing your emotions don’t have to rule your choices.
Notice your emotions, and think about how they’re serving you. Is your anger signaling that someone is treating you badly? Does your exhaustion mean you might need a rest? Your emotions are speaking to you. What are they saying?
Are there professional mindfulness services?
There are many professional, evidence-based strategies for the practice of mindfulness. Many of our therapists at Viva incorporate mindfulness approaches in their work with clients. You can learn more by reading their profiles.
What about you? Have you practiced mindfulness? We’d love to hear from you!
Erin Ross, MS OTR/L is an occupational therapist and an aspiring science writer in DC. She believes in evidence-based practice, clear communication in healthcare, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.