Mindfulness: What It Is and How It Can Reduce Stress
by Michelle Dadoun, MA, MFT (MyLATherapist.com)
You know how it is: Get up at the crack of dawn, make breakfasts and lunches, get the kids dressed and ready, shower, shuttle everyone to school, and you’re doing all of this while thinking about your chores for the day. You have to go to the market, get the dry cleaning, clean the house, make dinner, get the dog groomed… What else was there? Oh, yeah…me time! But when is there time for that? After all, you’re in the car for half the day listening to the radio while thinking about the rest of your chores, and all of a sudden, you’re home and you have no idea how you got there.
The answer is simple: mindfulness, and it just takes
five minutes. But what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental, present-centered form of awareness that helps reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. It brings more meaning to day-to-day experiences as one focuses on the here and now. Thoughts, feelings, and sensations are acknowledged and accepted as they are, without passing judgment.
In their audio book Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World (2011), Mark Williams and Danny Penman suggest we live in “doing” and “experiencing” worlds. Imagine a box. We live inside this box every day. This is our “doing” box. Inside of our “doing” box is everything we need to do. Remember that list of chores mentioned above? That is us living in our doing box.
Now take a moment to step outside of the box. This is our “experiencing” space. This is where mindfulness takes place – a space where we experience sounds, tastes, smells, sights, and sensations. Finding time to step out into our experiencing space is not as difficult as you might think.
For instance, see that cookie (or raisin or carrot or cup of coffee) staring at you? If no food is currently around, find or imagine something yummy. Observe your treat. What does it feel like? Is it heavy or light? Is it smooth or rough? How does it smell? Are crumbs dropping on your lap? Take a bite. What does it taste like? What is the texture like? Is it soft, hard, chewy, crispy?
This is mindful eating. You’re not judging the cookie; you’re experiencing it. You are choosing to focus all of your attention on this cookie. It’s deliberate, nonjudgmental, and happening right now.
By practicing mindfulness exercises daily with anything at any time,
you learn to live in the present with a new sense of acceptance and
appreciation, two of the keys to happiness.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Here are a few other ways:
Take a five-minute break from your work. How are you feeling? Happy, sad, rushed, excited? What does your body feel like? Are you hungry, thirsty, hot, cold? How about your physical self? Are your muscles sore, are you itchy, are you feeling flexible? Still your thoughts and just be with yourself.
But your thoughts are hard to stop, right? So, observe them. Just notice the thoughts running through your mind. You don’t have to do anything with them, other than notice that they are there. There is no wrong answer. This is mindfulness. Choose and learn to control your focus of attention, and you will achieve mindfulness.
Relaxation breathing is a key aspect of stress reduction, and it comes in many forms: yoga, meditation, or relaxation exercises. If you are looking for a way to do relaxation breathing that does not take much time and can be done anywhere, look no further then Ken Goodman’s Three by Three Relaxation Breathing (The Anxiety Solution Series at QuietMindSolutions.com). It is meant to be practiced for no more than one minute at a time and it can be done anywhere, even while driving.
To engage in Three by Three Breathing, you must breathe from your nose – slowly, quietly, and deeply – causing your stomach to rise with each inhale. As you breathe, you should think of a relaxing phrase to yourself in slow motion: “Breathe… and relax.” Think the phrase as slowly as you can. Allow your thoughts to come and go without judging them, as you focus on your phrase and on your stomach rising as you inhale.
Another method is sensory, as mentioned in the example of the cookie
above. Notice sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and tastes, and label
them as such without judgment. Then, let the labels go.
Yet another mindfulness method is “urge surfing.” Cope with cravings (for addictive substances or behaviors) and allow them to pass. Notice how your body feels as the craving enters. Replace the wish for the craving to go away with the certain knowledge that it will subside. (http://www.helpguide.org/harvard/mindfulness.htm)
It’s unbelievable what mindfulness practice can do for you. Mindfulness practice decreases stress, boosts immune functioning, reduces chronic pain, lowers blood pressure, and reduces the risk of heart disease. Mindfulness practice reduces the kinds of impulsivity and reactivity that lead to binge eating, depression, and attention problems.
Those who practice mindfulness are more exuberant, empathetic, and secure. They have higher self-esteem and are more accepting of themselves. They are less resistant and fight less with their partners, resulting in happier relationships. (Dixit, 2008)
Experts believe that mindfulness reduces stress because it allows people to accept their experiences, both positive and negative, instead of reacting to them with aversion and avoidance. (http://www.helpguide.org/harvard/mindfulness.htm)
Melanie Greenberg (2012) discusses nine essential qualities of mindfulness in her blog. They are:
- Focus on the present moment – Remaining open to how things (thoughts etc.) unfold in the present rather than thinking about how things will or should turn out. Being fully present. Being spaciously aware of whatever you are experiencing (mind, body, spirit).
- Openness to experience – Welcoming, with curiosity, any thoughts or feelings that naturally arise. Becoming aware of experiences as a flow of sensations, thoughts, and feelings, and watching how they change naturally over time.
- Nonjudgment – Not categorizing thoughts and feelings as good or bad, not changing them, or feeling compelled to act on them. Watch and accept whatever arises in consciousness with an open mind.
- Acceptance of things as they are – Not trying to force or change reality into your vision of what it should be.
- Connection – Feeling as part of a larger whole. Feeling connected to all living things in nature.
- Nonattachment – Trying not to hold on to things, people, or experiences. Recognizing that life is a constant flow.
- Peace and Equanimity – Maintain an even keel by not getting swept up in life’s highs and lows.
- Compassion – Dealing gently, kindly, and patiently with yourself and others. Keeping an open heart to really listen and to try to understand your own and others’ experiences.
With just a few moments of deliberate, nonjudgmental focus, you can practice mindfulness in no time and get on your way to living a happier, stress-free life.