Updated: Mar 12, 2021
As humans, it is in our nature to regularly plan for the future and reminisce about the past. This is great as we’re moving toward our future goals or reflecting on memories from years ago; however, what happens when the ability to think forwards and backwards becomes a nightmare? When we are no longer thinking about wonderful pastimes, but instead fixating on negative events from our past, or, running circles in our minds, worrying about the future? Although our ability to plan ahead and process the past has many benefits, there may be times in a person’s life where this ability becomes more a hindrance than a benefit. That is where the skill of mindfulness can be of great benefit in teaching us to slow down and focus on the present moment, rather than getting lost in the past or future.
Mindfulness has been found by researchers to help generally improve our mood and positive emotions, while decreasing our anxiety and reactivity to negative emotions  (e.g., even when we experience sadness, we may not sink as deep into the emotion, or let negative emotions send us into a spiral). Studies have also shown that mindfulness has benefits toward physical conditions as well, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia, psoriasis, and chronic pain . For more information on the benefits of mindfulness click here. This is yet another skill that has become quite popular over time due to its many benefits, so it’s worth discussing exactly what mindfulness is and what it is not before practicing.
What Mindfulness is
Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment without judgment. Sounds relatively simple, however, many people find that if they are willing to slow down and pay attention to their thoughts for a period of time, they’ll notice that many of their thoughts are riddled with judgments. After all, humans have evolved to make judgments. If we think back on our ancestors, they constantly needed to evaluate and make critical judgments on a daily basis for survival: Is this plant safe? Is that animal going to attack? So naturally, one can imagine the work it takes to reduce this automatic process.
Mindfulness can help us pay attention to our thoughts so they become more intentional (e.g., mindful or purposeful) and less automatic. At this point, it becomes clearer how this skill can be beneficial in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as it can help us notice unhelpful thoughts (also called cognitive distortions) we may be having in the moment. By observing these distorted thoughts, which are often not based on reality, we can learn to create more accurate, balanced thoughts that are less likely to increase negative symptoms, such as anxiety.
What mindfulness is not
Mindfulness is not thinking positive or trying to clear your mind. We are not trying to paint the world with a picture of puppies and rainbows because that is not life. Of course, there are benefits to having a more positive or optimistic mindset, but the purpose of mindfulness is simply to observe and just notice what thoughts you are having in any given moment. We are not trying to control or label our thoughts. Furthermore, the very idea of “thinking positive” is leaden with judgment, implying that thoughts can be labeled positive or negative. With mindfulness, we are trying to remove these judgments and just observe thoughts as simply thoughts, neither good nor bad. Thoughts are just a constant process that happens in our brains. Just as our hearts pump blood throughout our bodies, our brain creates thoughts.
Mindfulness vs Meditation
Mindfulness also differs from meditation in a variety of ways, although there is some overlap. Mindfulness can be used in many different contexts, such as while taking a walk, eating dinner, or socializing. However, meditation tends to be practiced while seated, often with eyes closed, and the intent may be to clear the mind, spiritually focused, compassionate focused, etc. Although, one could also practice a form of mindful meditation that is also based on self-compassion, etc., which creates some overlap. There are many different types of meditation, just as there are many types of mindfulness; however, while meditating, one usually sets aside a defined period of time to meditate, which is not always true for mindfulness. For example, one may spontaneously decide to practice mindfulness while driving to the grocery store. Of course, one can intentionally schedule time to practice mindfulness, but the practice often tends to be more based on awareness in the current moment. One can turn their mind and focus on awareness of the sounds they are hearing in nature while sitting in the backyard, or the smell, texture, taste, and temperature of the food they are eating.
With mindfulness, one is becoming an observer of themselves in the moment rather than being overly attached to whatever thoughts or emotions may arise. There are many benefits to this, such as allowing oneself to notice the subtle changes in our moods, which can be really helpful if you’re feeling depressed, anxious, etc. Often times, when we are feeling depressed, or any other strong, negative emotion, we tend to overly identify with that emotion and it can feel all-consuming (“I feed depressed all the time”). By instead becoming an observer of your emotions, while taking a step back and simply noticing how you feel in the moment, you may be surprised to find how often your emotions really do change on any given day– even in the subtlest way. For example, maybe you laughed at something you saw on TV. In that moment, you likely were not overwhelmed with sadness and depression. Even if the sadness immediately came back, it is important to pay attention to the impermanence of both thoughts and emotions. In this way, mindfulness can be a very freeing practice, allowing oneself more compassion and flexibility as you detach from consuming, negative emotions, and simply observe their presence without holding onto them.
I always like to start with very basic exercises to make it even easier to get started and less overwhelming. I already covered mindful breathing in a previous post, which is a great starting point, so today I’ll introduce a mindful body scan, mindful walking, and mindful eating. The body scan is excellent in helping us become more aware of where we may be carrying stress in the body so we can release tension or even move toward acceptance (less negative judgment) if we have chronic pain in areas of our body. I’ll discuss acceptance more in a later post. I also find that mindful walking and eating are great forms of mindfulness practices since we can easily incorporate these practices into our daily lives. I am just introducing brief practices to get you started, but as you begin to practice more, feel free to spend more time on each activity, paying attention to any sensory information you observe: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.
Mindful Body Scan
1. Sit comfortably in a chair and close your eyes if you’re comfortable doing so.
2. Shift your attention to your breath and notice the sensations of your breath as your breath in and breath out. Continue noticing your breath for at least a minute.
3. Now, shift your attention to your feet. Observe any sensations you feel in your feet. Do you notice any pain, pressure, or other sensations? Simply pay attention to any sensations that arise. Spend around 30 seconds just observing your feet.
4. Repeat step 3 working your way up the rest of your body, paying attention to the various sensations you observe in your lower legs, knees, thighs, pelvic region, abdomen, lower back, upper back, lower arms, upper arms, hands, neck, face, and head.
5. When you complete the body scan, take a few moments to shift you attention back to your breath. When you’re ready, visualize the room you are sitting in, envision your body sitting it the chair, and slowly open your eyes.
1. Find a space with enough area to walk around. This can be a large indoor area or outside in nature.
2. Start walking naturally and observe your breath for a few moments. Then, gradually shift your attention to the feel of your feet walking on the ground. What do you notice? Observe any sensations that arise, such as the feel of gravel beneath your feet, the softness of grass, or the hardness of cement. Pay attention to the sensations as each foot rises and falls with each step. Spend at least a few minutes observing these sensations.
3. Repeat step 2, shifting your attention to other areas of your body as you’re walking, observing the physical sensations that arise. Notice how your arms may naturally swing as you walk, or how your legs and knees bend with each step. Notice if you have any pain or tension in your body. Now, shift your attention back to your breath and notice how your rate of breathing may change the longer you walk.
4. Shift your attention to your other senses. What sounds do you notice as you’re walking? Maybe you hear birds, the wind through the trees, cars passing by, or the sound of your appliances humming if you’re indoors. Do you notice any smells? Try to pay attention to even the subtlest of smells, especially if you’re inside. Then, observe your surroundings through your sense of sight. Pay attention to the different shades of green, blue, etc. Notice any textures, such as the bark on a tree or the ripples in the water. Notice the shapes of the clouds or the shape of the room you’re walking in.
5. Now, shift your attention to observing yourself, almost as if you’re looking down on yourself from above. Observe yourself walking naturally, being mindful of your surroundings, present in the moment. Continue walking mindfully until you’re ready to stop, remembering you can shift into this state of being at any time.
1. Find a comfortable place to sit with a meal or snack of your choice.
2. Take a few moments to simply sit and visually look at your food, noticing the different colors, shapes, or textures.
3. Shift your attention to your sense of smell. Lean in and take in the smell of your food. Does it have a strong smell or is it mild? As you breath in the smell, can you sense the temperature just by smelling the steam or chill in your nostrils? Notice if your stomach is experiencing any sensations just through your sense of smell. Is your stomach rumbling with hunger from the scent of your food? Do you notice your mouth salivating in preparation for your food? Notice all of these physical sensations that occur just from your sense of smell.
4. Now, take a bite of food and notice your impulse to want to automatically start chewing and swallowing the food. Instead of chewing, just hold the food in your mouth for a moment and notice the taste on your tongue. Is it spicy, sweet, salty, or sour? Warm or cold? Shift your attention to noticing the texture of food while you hold it in your mouth. Is it soft and smooth or does it have a rough texture?
5. Slowly start to chew your food, noticing how your teeth clench together and pull apart with each chewing motion. While swallowing your food, be mindful of the sensations you feel as the food moves down your throat.
6. Continue eating your food slowly, noticing the textures, smells, tastes, and sensations as you chew and swallow your food. As you continue eating, pay attention to the sensations in your belly as well, observing any feelings of fullness.
These are just a few, basic mindfulness activities to get you started, but if you’re feeling so inclined, feel free to continue practicing throughout your day by taking a mindful shower, doing the dishes mindfully, talking to a friend mindfully, etc. There are also plenty of apps you can download on your phone if you’d like to try guided mindfulness exercises. Please remember, mindfulness is a practice like any other, so it’s best to practice daily and build your sense of mindfulness gradually. Be especially aware of self-criticisms as well. Many people get frustrated since they think they’re not “doing it right,” but remember, that is a judgment and not coming from a mindful perspective. If your thoughts keep shifting their attention to something other than the mindfulness exercise you're practicing, that’s okay, just keep shifting your attention back. That’s just what our thoughts do. If you decide you’d like professional help with mindfulness or other issues that may be bothering you, please feel free to contact me today.
Please note: This blog is for informational purposes only. It does not represent a therapeutic interaction. If you are experiencing a psychiatric emergency, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.