Mindfulness – what is it, and why bother?

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When you hear the word mindfulness, what comes to mind? 

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about what mindfulness is and how it can help us. A lot of people equate mindfulness with meditation. While there is some overlap, they are not the same thing. In meditation, you might devote a specific period of time to a formal practice, such as sitting or walking, with the intention of cultivating a certain quality or state of mind. Mindfulness, on the other hand, can be done anytime, anywhere, doing anything; it is not limited to a formal, dedicated practice in the same way that meditation is. 

You can practice mindfulness meditationif you sit, stand, or lay down for a certain, predetermined period of time, and there can be a lot of benefits to developing a routine practice like this! However, you can also practice mindfulness on a more informal level, in your everyday life.  

Research has demonstrated that having a regular mindfulness practice can have huge impacts on your mental and physical wellbeing. Mindfulness is associated with (among many other things) improvements in sleep, mood, concentration, and memory, and reductions in anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. There is evidence that mindfulness can actually change your brain physiology when practiced on a regular and consistent basis. How cool is that?  

In mindfulness, we can observe our internal and external experiences, and describe those experiences by putting words to them in a non-judgmental way. 

A very simple mindfulness exercise that you can practice on your own is to pay attention to your breath. You might notice the feeling of cool air coming in through your nose or mouth, the sensation of your belly expanding or your chest rising, the feeling of warm air leaving your body. See if you can focus all of your energy and attention on your breathing. If you find your mind wandering, as it will inevitably do, or if you have urges to stop noticing because you feel bored or uncomfortable, try to notice those thoughts, then see if you can gently let them go and turn your attention back to your breath. 

You may have to turn your mind back several times, because our minds are often busy and it is normal for them to wander! It may not feel comfortable or relaxing right away, but over time, it will become easier to notice and bring it back to your focus. 

The goal of mindfulness is simply to notice, and be aware of what is happening in the present moment. It is not necessarily to relax or feel better, although many people tend to experience relaxation and improved mood the more they practice. The more focused you are on the present, the less likely you are to get caught up in painful emotions that are often linked to the past or the future.

Consider what cultivating mindfulness might look like in your own life, give it a try, and see how it changes your experience over time! 

Next steps

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References: 

Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT® skills training manual (2nd ed.). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

Sockolov, M. (2018). Mindfulness vs. meditation: What’s the difference? Retrieved from https://oneminddharma.com/mindfulness-vs-meditation/