What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a term that has gained popularity increasingly over the last several years. If you have been wondering what exactly it means or how you can practice being mindful, then read on.
According to mindful.org, ‘Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.’ It seems appropriate to add ‘inside of us‘ to the end of this definition as mindfulness is also a tremendous coping skill for managing anxious or depressive feelings.
Jon Kabat-Zinn created Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in the 1970s to help treat individuals struggling with life’s difficulties, physical illness, and/or mental illness (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). Today, MBSR is incorporated into many mental health, pain management, and stress reduction programs all over the world.
The positive effects of mindfulness have been well documented and many mental wellness practitioners use some form of mindfulness in their work with clients. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) lists several Toronto based programs here. while the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CMHA) incorporates mindfulness programs into many of its regional programs across Canada. A quick online search reveals the wide reach of this practice.
According to Scientific American, MRI scans show that after 8 weeks of deliberate mindfulness practice ‘the brain’s fight or flight centre, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.’
Another web resource, HelpGuide (a collaboration with Harvard University) cites other reasons to begin incorporating mindfulness practice into your life, including: managing depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, conflict, anxiety, and even obsessive compulsive disorders.
Additionally, an article by Jill Suttie titled ‘Five Science Backed Reasons Mindfulness Meditation is Good for Your Health,’ and published here, further states the benefits of how mindfulness can improve your life. The article posits:
- Mindfulness is good for our hearts in reducing blood pressure, potentially lowering risk of heart disease
- Mindfulness may decrease cognitive decline from aging or Alzheimer’s disease
- Mindfulness may improve your immune response
- Mindfulness may reduce cell aging
- Mindfulness may help reduce psychological pain
With all of the above reasons to practice mindfulness, how does one actually take the steps to do so?
There are no shortage of resources that describe ways to practice mindfulness online and in the community. However, below is an easy, 5 minute mindfulness exercise that you can do on your own. This exercise will help you feel grounded when anxious feelings are present and also can help manage anxiousness proactively by lowering overall stress ahead of life events. All you need is 5 minutes and a place to sit comfortably.
A Mindfulness Exercise
This mindfulness exercise will allow you to take a break from any stressors that you are experiencing, slow down racing thoughts in your mind, slow your heart rate, and begin to teach you the skill of declining the invitation to focus on unhelpful thoughts that arise in your mind that take you out of the moment.
Think about your stress level out of 10 before the exercise and after. Be honest with yourself as you do this and if it is challenging, try to focus on what you feel differently in your body; did your breathing slow down, is your pulse as high as it was before, or are your thoughts continuing to race, for example.
Step 1 – Find yourself a comfortable place to be seated that supports you to sit up tall and straight. Try not to fall back into a comfortable chair, as mindfulness is not the same as relaxation and is more about being present in the moment with what you choose to put your attention on; it is not simply distraction.
Step 2 – Once you are seated, start to take some deep breaths. Notice yourself in the chair and how the chair is supporting you. Notice how the floor is supporting your feet, how the back is holding you upright, and allow your body to relax into the seat with each exhale and allow tension to leave the body. For the next 5 minutes, all you need to do is breathe. If you are able to continue breathing for 5 minutes, then you will be successful in this exercise.
Step 3 – You will begin by breathing in to a count of 1, after which you will exhale to the same count of 1. Following that, inhale to a count of 2, and exhale to a count of 2. Repeat these steps until you reach 10 (inhale counting to 3, exhale counting to 3, inhale counting to 4, exhale counting to 4 and so on).
Should you get to 10, then start over and go back to 1, repeating the counting process above. If you lose count, go back to 1 and progress to 10 again. If you get to 10, then go back to 1. If you have a thought that distracts you, acknowledge that thought exists and tell yourself that you do not need to focus on it now, and reset back at 1. Continue this until the timer ends after 5 minutes. This exercise is not about reaching ten, but rather about being completely present and in the moment for 5 minutes.
Part of this exercise is learning to understand that you will have thoughts that come in unconsciously throughout your day, but that they do not require your attention and you have the ability to ignore them and focus your intention where you choose to. By practicing the above exercise, you will enhance the skill of not giving attention to unhelpful or intrusive thoughts and begin to find yourself more aware and productive in your day to day activities.
Over the next week, try to start and end your day with this exercise; when you wake up and when you are going to bed.Track what you notice each time and over the week. After a week, reflect on your experience. What did you notice about your thoughts? What did you notice about your stress levels? How did you respond differently to stressful moments in your day? It may help to ask those in your life what they have noticed through the week. We all have 5 minutes in our day to help create a less anxious and less stressful life, what do you have to lose, other than stress?
Publisher’s Note: Alexander Cameron is a Licensed Psychotherapist with the Ontario College of Social and Service Workers.