We all feel overwhelmed sometimes, when our thoughts spiral out of control, threatening to drown us in them. When we can’t see outside of the negative thoughts and emotions for hours, days, or even weeks on end. Maybe you are anxious and stressed about the future promotion, or maybe you can’t let go of that thing someone said to you years ago. You ruminate on the past and worry about the future to the point you feel stressed and anxious; you feel like you are drowning in your thoughts and feeling more stressed than before your thought spiraled.
Mindfulness is a practice that has been gaining traction in recent years among both psychologists and the general population. Over time, this practice has been shown to help reduce levels of stress, depression, and anxiety while also increasing levels of attention, focus, and working memory in individuals who practice on a regular basis. It has been shown to also help those in recovery from substance abuse. Much research has found that with mindfulness many individuals are able to focus less on repeated and persistent negative thoughts and emotions about events in the past and about the future. It is easier to break away from the negative thought cycle of ‘I am going to fail my test,’ ‘I will not get the promotion,’ ‘I am a failure.’
So what is Mindfulness, how does it help and where does it come from?
Mindfulness is the ability of a person to be fully present in the current moment, paying attention to everything one might be thinking or feeling without any judgement towards those emotions and feelings. It brings you back to the present, focusing on the now rather than the negative thoughts about past and future actions.
Dating back thousands of years, mindfulness has roots in both Buddhism and Hinduism. An essential practice in Buddhist teachings is ‘Sati.’ Sati literally translates to memory but is commonly taken to mean mindfulness. During Sati, one maintains an awareness of their own body and mental states with an attitude of mental calmness and composure. Sati is something that everyone has, it is an innate quality which we can further develop and cultivate to work towards a better self, without changing who we are at the beliefs we hold.
This practice was brought to the west in the late 1970’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn who created the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or MBSR program through the adaptation of Buddhist teachings. Since then, it has gained widespread popularity among children and adults alike due to the fact it is simple to practice, requires no cost, and is backed up by mass amount of evidence showing its effectiveness in reducing stress and anxiety while improving emotional regulation in many individuals.
Why does it help?
Mindfulness pushes you toward an awareness about yourself- your thoughts and emotions. When you are able to confront those thoughts, in a non-judgemental manner, you are forced to feel them, recognize them and acknowledge them. Many times, it is easier to push these thoughts and feelings down, ignore them through excessive activity, doing your best to pretend they don’t exist until they build up inside of you. This denial causes the negative thoughts to spiral and can lead to issues such as stress, depression, and anxiety.
After you are comfortably able to recognize your thoughts, you will slowly be able to see a pattern emerge over time. You can recognize how often these thoughts emerge, how they may impact your day-to-day life, the specific thoughts you fixate on, what can trigger them. From there, you know what the issue is, why it is there, and it is easier to deal with than if you had let it accumulate inside you. You are capable of stopping your negative thoughts from escalating and move past them a lot easier by engaging in positive corrective actions or just by focusing on the present moment.
How can it be practiced?
When negative thoughts first emerge, people have a tendency to try to solve the issue they think the emotions are causing and when they are unable to, they may end up spiraling in a negative thought cycle. Through mindfulness, they must direct all their mental energy toward the present, experience their environment and body, their thought and emotions, focusing on being kind and caring towards themselves, leaving no room for the problem solving and rumination. This allows for a break in the negative thought cycle or for it to end a lot faster, with less of a long-term impact than might have otherwise been present.
It is an easy practice which can be done throughout the day, at any moment in time. The most popular form of Mindfulness is a sitting meditation with a full body scan. All you need is to set some time aside for meditation and try paying attention to sensations of the body. Sit comfortably in your chair, straight up, but without removing the natural curvature of your spine. Keep your arms comfortable and loose, at their sides, or resting on your legs. Be aware of your body- What do your legs feel like? Are your feet heavy on the floor? Are your shoulders pressing downward? Can you feel each breath in your chest as you pull it in and out? It is okay if your mind wanders, don’t judge yourself for it, just do your best to bring yourself back to the present.
While sitting and breath meditation is the most popular form of mindfulness, there are a number of other ways it can be practiced. You can practice mindfulness while walking by focusing on each individual step you take. If you are in your room, try walking from one end of the room to the other and then back. Be aware of how you walk, the feeling of your hips, the way they connect to your feet. Focus in matching your breadth to each step you take
Another way of practicing mindfulness can be with daily activities such as eating a food. Be aware of each different sense as you eat-touch, taste, smell, hear and what you can see. Take a few deep breadths before you begin to eat, be aware of how your body feels before you begin eating; an awareness of how hungry you are and the signals your body is sending you to make you aware of this hunger. Is your stomach growling, do you have a headache, is your mind only able to think about when you get to eat next, do you lack energy? If you are eating with your hands, feel the texture of the food, the feeling of the food on your finger. Is it sticky, squishy, or melting in your hand? What does it smell like and what does it taste like?
This same exercise can also be done with objects, either in front of you, for you to focus on or in your hands- focusing on the texture of the object, the temperature, shape, and size.
There are a variety of ways one can practice mindfulness, incorporating it in daily life while eating or walking, or through exercise such as mindfulness yoga. By incorporating these small changes, you can have a great impact on yourself and your mental well being.
Written By: Alisha Khanduja