Serenity Now: Everything You Need To Know About Mindfulness
Mindfulness is great for physical and mental health—and anyone can benefit from it. Ready to get started?
April 4, 2022
Chances are, you’re either under a lot of stress or know someone who is—and you’re far from alone. According to an article in the Harvard Gazette, 80% of Americans live with daily stress and have difficulty calming their minds.
People who experience mental health challenges often struggle to keep their minds from wandering. Often, having strong emotions can cause one’s attention to focus on negative thoughts. When combined with daily stressors, all of this can seem unmanageable at best.
Mindfulness, which involves opening awareness and being present, is a great way to promote both physical and mental health. Regularly practicing mindfulness can be helpful during times of uncertainty by easing stress and creating a sense of calm.
With practice, mindful folks can stay aware of their experiences, label their emotions, make healthier choices, and not get stuck in negative thinking patterns. Like with muscles, our brain needs to be trained so we can be more mindful—and we’re here to help.
Keep Reading To Learn
- What mindfulness is—and what it isn’t
- The benefits of mindfulness for our mental health
- How to start incorporating mindfulness into our daily lives
Mindfulness is intentionally giving your full attention to the current moment without judgment. Quite simply, this means that you’re engaging in the task at hand with your full attention.
For example, if you are going to eat, eat—and don’t do anything else. No emails, no television, no screen time—just eat. This active state of paying attention lets you observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment and also gives your full attention to what you’re doing in that moment: In this example, it’s nourishing your body.
When you slow down and notice what is happening “in the moment,” you can calmly observe what is happening within and around you without feeling overwhelmed. In this state, you can act without overreacting and make decisions that align with your core values.
Everyone can tap into their ability to be mindful. Like any skill, it is easier when you practice every day. Most people get into the habit of allowing their minds to wander, so it requires effort to bring awareness back to what they are experiencing in the moment and tune into their emotions and thoughts.
Introducing Mindfulness to Kids
Mindfulness is an important tool in the toolbox to manage stress and help support mental health and wellness in your entire family.
The Impact of Mindfulness on Our Health
Research has shown that mindfulness practice can lower levels of depression, anxiety, stress, and similar conditions. While there’s so much research out there on the benefits of mindfulness practice, we’ve rounded up the top 10 benefits of mindfulness to our overall health:
- Mindfulness can improve our mental stability and minimize negativity and stress.
- Meditation practices can promote immune health.
- Mindfulness can increase gray matter in areas of the brain involved in memory, learning, empathy, and emotional control.
- It provides you with an opportunity to slow down and notice your emotions, thoughts, and urges. For example, mindful eating helps you savor what you eat and avoid overeating by being more aware of when your body is signaling that it’s full. In this way, mindfulness can help you make healthier eating choices.
- Mindfulness training has been proven to improve your concentration, attention span, and memory.
- Mindfulness can help you regulate your emotions by decreasing emotional reactivity, while increasing compassion for yourself.
- Your capacity for empathy can increase with regular mindfulness practice. A study revealed that mindfulness can increase activity in neural networks that can make you more sensitive to others’ struggles. It may also boost your desire to be kind to yourself.
- Relationship satisfaction can increase with mindfulness. When couples engage in mindfulness training, they report higher satisfaction and closeness with one another. Going through mindfulness training makes them feel optimistic and more accepting of one another.
- If you are a parent—or a parent-to-be—you can also benefit from mindfulness practice. During pregnancy, stress and anxiety are common in both parents. Those who practice mindfulness become more patient and self-forgiving, which can help them be better parents.
- Research suggests that symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma disorders often decrease with mindfulness practice.
Although mindfulness has been practiced for nearly two thousand years, it has only been incorporated more into mental health treatments in recent years. Research has found that areas of the brain associated with mind-wandering, learning, memory, and anxiety can change within a few weeks of starting a mindfulness practice.
Beginning in the 1960s, mindfulness has been an essential component of many evidence-based treatments in the mental health field, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. Such therapies include meditation, the formal counterpart to mindfulness.
Studies have shown that mindfulness is effective in lessening the following physical and mental symptoms:
- High blood pressure
There is also some evidence to suggest that it can help with painful conditions, such as fibromyalgia, and respiratory conditions, such as asthma.
As if this didn’t seem good enough, some of the additional benefits of meditation include a longer attention span, better sleeping patterns, and decreased levels of burnout.
Who Benefits—and How to Get Started
Anyone can benefit from a regular mindfulness practice. Mindfulness training is particularly beneficial to those who have difficulties regulating their emotions, are impulsive, have endured a traumatic event, or are recovering from a substance use disorder.
If you or a loved one are having difficulty managing stress, emotions, or negative thoughts, mindfulness can be a great tool. Also, mindfulness practices can help you make healthier choices and improve your relationships.
Indeed, mindfulness plays a role in breaking habits, such as overeating. By becoming more aware of your emotional triggers and eating behavior, you can replace bad behaviors with healthier ones.
Mindfulness can improve relationships and may cause you to disengage from unhealthy relationships. Research findings indicate that mindfulness can improve interpersonal skills in general. When you stay attentive and present in a relationship, it cultivates empathy and connectedness.
If you’re looking to get started in mindfulness, many get started by using apps, such as Headspace, Insight Timer, Buddhify, and Ten Percent Happier. Such programs guide you to strengthen the “mindfulness muscle,” acting as a gateway to regular mindfulness practice.
Looking for a Clinical Approach to Mindfulness?
Many clinicians have begun to incorporate mindfulness as a holistic approach to mental health.
There are several mindfulness-based treatment models you should discuss with your health care provider, including the following:
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction
- Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy
- Acceptance and commitment therapy
- Dialectical behavior therapy
These treatments have become more widely available over the past several years. Along with evidence-based therapy, practices such as meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness techniques can increase self-awareness, concentration, emotion regulation, and overall wellness.
If you want to find someone that has the right expertise, make sure to verify their credentials and formal training experience.
Mindfulness for Kids & Teens
Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, lays the foundation of mindfulness for kids, shares tips to get kids and teens involved in mindful practices, and answers audience questions about mindfulness.
A Beginner’s Guide to Mindful Meditation
Mindfulness doesn’t need to be an hours-long, silent practice to be effective.
Meditation, on the other hand, may be more impactful if you can find a quiet place. But you can meditate anywhere, for as long as you’d like.
Here are some steps to get started with meditating.
Location / Position
- Find a quiet spot
- Cross your legs carefully in front of you in a comfortable position
- Straighten your upper body and maintain good posture
- Soften your gaze: You can close your eyes if that is comfortable or lower them so that your gaze is unfocused
- Breathe deeply from your belly or your chest: A good starting point is “box breathing,” where you breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, and exhale for four counts
- Concentrate: As your thoughts wander, keep them coming back to your breathing; this will help you relax without judgment
Incorporating Mindfulness Into Your Daily Life
Mindfulness is something you can practice at any time. You can do any activity mindfully: showering, eating, walking, getting dressed, etc.
Here are some ways to get started.
Take Time Every Day for Yourself
Choose one activity or chore that you would like to do mindfully. It can be anything. You could take a walk or close your eyes and lay down to practice staying in the moment. Or you can brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand.
One method that may help commuting folks: Drive a car completely mindfully. Turn the phone and radio off, pay attention to what you see, and label it in your mind by saying, “I notice the white house on the corner. I notice the squirrel on the side of the road.”
Stay in the Moment
Engage in that activity with all your attention. Put words to the experience. Describe it using your five senses: What do you see, feel, hear, smell, taste?
Pause Your Judgmental Thoughts
It is a natural human tendency to judge every situation. You can’t stop your mind from having judgmental thoughts, but you can let them glide by without feeding into them.
Your mind will wander; be patient and kind to it. Gently remind yourself that you are concentrating on staying in the present and not thinking about what you will make for supper.
When you practice mindfulness or meditate, you can focus on your breath. Throughout the practice, concentrate on the experience of breathing by using your senses, and if you notice your mind wandering, gently bring it back to your breathing.
Practicing Mindfulness as a Family
If you’re looking to introduce mindfulness to your family, a great starting point is to explain the purpose of practicing mindfulness. Try telling your family, “We do this to help train our brains to focus on the here and now.”
As a family, pick an activity, like one of the exercises below, or object to focus on. Set a timer for 3-5 minutes and ask family members to bring their attention to the object/activity.
Alert family members when their attention wanders from the activity. Parents should notice when their kids’ (or partner’s) attention has wandered. Gently bring their attention back to the activity without judgment. Everyone should resist the urge to be silly and/or competitive.
After the activity, share observations with your family:
- Where did your mind go?
- Did you notice any particular thoughts, feelings, urges, physical sensations, or judgments?
We know it may be difficult to get the whole family together for mindfulness practices. Another option is to incorporate it into things you’re already doing as a family, like eating dinner. Shutting off the TV while eating, or making mealtime a “screen-free zone” altogether, can help introduce focusing on one thing at a time—like eating—to family members.
Here are other mindfulness practices you can try with your family.
Twist and Shout
Each family member writes the words “twist,” “shout,” “baby,” and “shake” on a piece of paper. Each person makes a tally mark for every time they hear one of these four words as they listen to the song “Twist and Shout.”
Tear a Horse
Each family member is given a blank piece of paper. Everyone closes their eyes. When someone says “start,” each person tries to rip their paper into the shape of a horse without looking. Everyone shares their “horses” at the end.
Pass the Cup
Fill up a cup with water so that it is only an inch from the rim. Sit in a circle. Silently pass the cup around the circle, trying not to spill it. After five successful passes, start passing it around with everyone’s eyes closed.
Build a Story
Family members sit in a circle and take turns saying one sentence in a story. They create the story together, one line at a time, until the timer goes off.
For one minute, have family members observe each other’s shoes. Then, each person describes the shoes without judgment and with overly specific language, such as “Your shoes are black and have white laces.” If someone makes a judgment, like “Your shoes are cute,” ask, “What makes you say that?” to prompt more descriptive language.
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Mindfulness For Behavior Change
The practice of mindfulness allows you to be in better control of your emotions and how much life’s stressors impact you, both in the short and long term. More importantly, it can help us with how we react to the curveballs thrown our way.
Reduce Destructive Behaviors
Everyone wants to avoid suffering. When you avoid painful issues in your life by trying to suppress feelings or by engaging in impulsive behaviors, you may feel short-term relief. Ultimately, though, the avoidance of pain only leads to more distress and suffering in the long run.
Mindfulness teaches you to accept emotional pain, instead of trying to suppress it or avoid it, so that you can learn to better tolerate and manage it.
Gillian C. Galen, PsyD, a child and adolescent psychologist at McLean, sees many patients who have engaged in destructive behaviors to avoid feeling pain. “Many people seek treatment because they engage in behaviors that get them in trouble, and they want to change,” Galen says. “These behaviors include suicide, self-injury, and substance use. Or screaming at one’s partner or making rash purchases.”
When you engage in impulsive or destructive behaviors, you may think that it is something that “just happens.” However, self-destructive behaviors are often triggered and do not occur spontaneously.
Pay attention. Identify your triggers.
When you are not being mindful, it can be hard to identify your triggers, and it can seem that everything happened so fast. As a result, you may feel out of control and hopeless.
When you practice mindfulness and start paying attention, you can better identify your triggers and slow down your reactions. Mindfulness practice can help people sit in a space between the urge to do something and acting on that urge.
Mindfulness gives you the space to pause, and as you sit in that pause, you can choose how to react. You are no longer propelled by your emotions to act. You may choose to do that destructive behavior, or you may choose to do something different, more skillful, or more effective.
Reduce Emotional Reactivity
Mindfulness teaches you to let emotions run their course. This is known as “successful grieving.”
When you have an emotional experience and you allow yourself to feel it, rather than pushing it away, it becomes easier to bear over time. Being mindful involves noticing and labeling uncomfortable emotions, such as sadness, fear, and shame, without fighting them.
For example, if you experience anxiety, you might think, “Oh my, I’m anxious. I don’t want to be anxious. This anxiety is awful. Why am I always anxious? This is horrible. I hate this.” You might feel an urge to try to fight the anxiety and try desperately to calm down.
However, these attempts to calm or control the anxiety will only intensify it. You become anxious about being anxious. As the anxiety escalates, you become more panicked.
Mindfulness provides an alternative approach: Allow yourself to experience the anxiety. Put words to the experience: “I notice my heart beating faster. I notice my palms getting sweaty. I notice my thoughts racing.”
Once you simply experience anxiety mindfully, through observing and describing it, it starts to slow down because you are not struggling against it. When you observe and describe your experience, the emotional intensity will play itself out like a wave: It will intensify, peak, and then subside.
Gain Daily Balance
Being mindful also involves noticing positive emotions, like joy. Small moments of joy always happen in our daily life, but noticing them requires attention.
For example, when you are depressed, you have a negative bias and have a hard time paying attention to pleasant experiences. Mindfulness can help you have a more balanced view of your daily life.
Mindfulness Is a Lifelong Practice
The core teaching of mindfulness involves noticing the present moment, including the emotions you are experiencing in the moment, without judgment. To ease yourself into being more mindful, notice when you are having judgmental thoughts and let them go—don’t feed into them.
When you engage in judgmental thinking, you end up enhancing your struggles. Notice when your internal thoughts become judgmental and set them aside. This can help reduce issues, both now and in the future.
Mindfulness, like any skill, gets easier to achieve over time. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t come easily to you when you start. Soon enough, you’ll be focusing more on the daily joys of life with little to no effort.
Mindfulness is an important practice, but if you need help to manage your mental health, McLean offers world-class treatment options. Call us today at 617.855.3141 to find the care that’s right for yourself or your loved one.