How Mindfulness Can Help Improve Your Mental Health
If you have ever been in therapy, read a self-help book, or engaged in some sort of religious or spiritual practice, chances are that you have heard of mindfulness. But even if you recognize the term, you may still be unclear about the what, why and how of mindfulness. Considering the abundance of research on the benefits of mindfulness, it’s worth learning more, and perhaps integrating a mindfulness practice into your life.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the marriage of awareness and acceptance. It is paying attention – awareness– to your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and actions as you are experiencing them without trying to change them and without passing judgement on yourself or your experience in the process – acceptance. In the words of popular self-care slogans, mindfulness is “being in the moment.” At any given instant in our lives, our minds and bodies receive a plethora of stimulation in the form of sights, sounds, smells, thoughts and feelings. When we practice mindfulness, we pay conscious attention to noticing the stimuli without trying to interpret, alter, or eliminate them.
For instance, as you drive home from work after a long and frustrating day, you may find yourself replaying a conversation with a coworker in your mind while simultaneously writing a mental grocery list – and, oh! don’t forget to fill out that permission slip for your daughter’s class field trip on Friday – at the same time as you massage your tense neck with the hand that isn’t holding the steering wheel.
Integrating mindfulness into this scene wouldn’t change the fact that you had a frustrating day at work or that you have tasks still to be completed at home, but the car ride could look a bit different. Instead of your body and your mind being in two very different places–thus exacerbating your suffering in the moment–you would be taking deep, calming breaths and noticing the sights and sounds on the road as you pass by. A worried or agitated thought might enter your mind (no one is 100 percent mindful all the time), which you would acknowledge and accept, and then try to let go, returning your attention back to the present moment.
Why Mindfulness is Useful
Why is it so valuable to be mentally present and mindful of your sensory and internal experiences as they happen to you? It turns out that there are quite a few benefits to mindfulness.
- Mindfulness practice strengthens your ability to focus on one thing at a time, and as it does, it may curb and soothe overwhelming emotions. For instance, noticing the colors of the leaves on the trees instead of letting your mind be consumed by resentment over a co-worker’s behavior will serve to regulate your emotions.
- Being mindful can help you more fully enjoy the pleasurable aspects of life as they occur.
- Mindfulness can help improve physical health in a variety of ways, including lowering blood pressure, reducing chronic pain, improving sleep, and alleviating gastrointestinal difficulties.
- By grounding you in the present moment, mindfulness can make you less likely to ruminate on the past or worry about the future.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Like any beneficial behavior or life skill, mindfulness does not come easily or click into place effortlessly. Mindfulness practice is referred to as just that – practice – because it takes practice. The good news is that there are many activities and tools that are aimed to help individuals begin to practice mindfulness, one exercise at a time.
Here are a few ideas of places to start:
- Mindful breathing: A central component of mindfulness involves focused breathing. There are many ways to breathe mindfully, and one of them is often referred to as box breathing. Box breathing involves inhaling to a count of four, holding air in your lungs for a count of four, exhaling for another four-count, and then holding your lungs empty to the count of four. It’s simple but the rewards of this practice are significant. Focusing on the rising, falling, and counting of your breath can ground you in the present moment when you are distracted by your thoughts and feelings–it’s hard to replay old conversations and make worry lists when you are actively counting numbers. On top of that, this kind of breathing forces you to take slower, fuller, and deeper breaths, which decreases stress and heightens relaxation in the moment.
- Focus on a single object: For this exercise, choose an object in your surrounding that is small enough for you to hold. Find a comfortable place to sit where you won’t be disturbed and set a timer for five minutes. During those five minutes, direct all of your attention to the chosen object. First, observe the object with your eyes: what does the surface of the object look like? Is it colorful or muted? Shiny or dull? Smooth or rough? Does it appear heavy or light? Soft or hard? After a few minutes, pick up the object and begin noticing the way it feels: is it varied or uniform in texture? How heavy or light is it? What is the temperature? Is it smooth or rough? Keep your focus on the object until the timer goes off, redirecting your attention to the object as you become distracted.
- Mindfully eating a Hershey Kiss: You can mindfully eat any food item, but to practice the skill, I recommend starting with something small and delightful…like a Hershey Kiss! To mindfully eat a Hershey Kiss, take your time unwrapping the piece of chocolate: pay attention to the smoothness of the kiss, the crinkliness of the foil wrapper, and the light weight of the candy in your hand. Smell the chocolate before putting it into your mouth, detecting layers of scent below the obvious chocolate one. Then, as you place the kiss in your mouth, work your way through the senses: how does it taste? Smell? Feel? Is there sound involved in eating the kiss? You’ll never enjoy a Hershey Kiss as much as when you mindfully eat it!
Other Mindfulness Resources
If you are interested in integrating a mindfulness practice into your life and would like to learn more, there are many resources and tools available to help. Here are just a few:
- Podcasts: Some mindfulness podcasts – like Mindfulness Mode – offer interviews and information to help you learn more about mindfulness, while others – like the Rubin Museum Mindfulness Meditation Podcast – guide you through mindfulness exercises.
- Apps: Apps like Headspace, Calm and Healthy Minds Program (to name a few of many) provide everything from guided meditation sessions to flexible meditation timers to educational courses on mindfulness practice.
- Websites: Sites including Mindful, Mindfulness Exercises, and Smiling Mind (great for kids), provide a wealth of resources for people in all stages of the mindfulness journey.
Teresa Coda, M.Div is an MSW intern providing therapy services in the outpatient program at Brook Lane’s North Village location. She has a background in hospital chaplaincy and looks forward to getting licensed as a social worker therapist when she graduates in May 2023.