Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or become overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. Mindfulness is a quality that every human already possesses, it’s not something you have to conjure up; you just have to learn how to access it. Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful! That might seem trivial, except for the annoying fact that we so often veer from the matter at hand. Our mind takes flight, we lose touch with our body and pretty soon we’re engrossed in obsessive thoughts about something that just happened or fretting about the future. And that makes us anxious.
You’ve been mindful, you just didn’t know it
You're acting mindfully when you listen to a song you love and notice every tiny detail in the sound. Or maybe you've felt anxiety before a big event like a job interview, you acknowledged that feeling and chose to simply accept it. The opposite of mindfulness would be those times when your body works on “autopilot.” Maybe you've eaten a meal and realized you didn't taste a thing, just because you weren't paying attention. Or maybe you've said something cruel out of anger, without realizing that your emotions were driving your actions, until it was too late.
The benefits of mindfulness
When we’re mindful, we reduce stress, enhance performance, gain insight and awareness through observing our own mind and increase our attention to others’ well-being. In psychotherapy, mindfulness training is regularly used as a tool to treat depression, anxiety and stress. The good news is that it works, and it works well. One study even found that mindfulness training was as effective as anti-depressants at preventing the relapse of depressive symptoms! Physical health benefits of mindfulness include improved immune functioning and improved cardiovascular health.
How to practice mindfulness
While mindfulness is innate, it can be cultivated through proven techniques. Mindfulness is more readily available to us when we practice on a daily basis. In fact, there is growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually changing the physical structure of your brain. Here are a few techniques to try:
Use this exercise to quickly ground yourself in the present when you only have a moment. The goal is to notice something that you are currently experiencing through each of your senses.
- What are five things you can see? Look around you and notice five things you hadn’t noticed before. Maybe a pattern on a wall, light reflecting from a surface or a knick-knack in the corner of a room.
- What are four things you can feel? Maybe you can feel the pressure of your feet on the floor, your shirt resting on your shoulders, or the temperature on your skin. Pick up an object and notice its texture.
- What are three things you can hear? Notice all the background sounds you had been filtering out, such as air-conditioning, birds chirping or cars on a distant street.
- What are two things you can smell? Maybe you can smell flowers, coffee or freshly cut grass. It doesn’t have to be a nice smell either: maybe there’s an overflowing trash can or sewer.
- What is one thing you can taste? Pop a piece of gum in your mouth, sip a drink eat a snack, if you have one or simply notice how your mouth tastes. “Taste” the air to see how it feels on your tongue.
The numbers for each sense are only a guideline. Feel free to do more or less of each. Also, try this exercise while doing an activity like washing dishes, listening to music or going for a walk.
Find a place where you can sit quietly and undisturbed for a few moments. To begin, you might want to set a timer for about 10 minutes, but after some experience you should not be too concerned about the length of time you spend meditating.
Begin by bringing your attention to the present moment by noticing your breathing. Pay attention to your breath as it enters and then leaves your body. Before long, your mind will begin to wonder, pulling you out of the present moment. That’s ok. Notice your thoughts and feelings as if you are an outside observer watching what’s happening in your brain. Take note and allow yourself to return to your breathing.
Sometimes you might feel frustrated or bored. That’s fine—these are just a few more feelings to notice. Your mind might start to plan an upcoming weekend or worry about a responsibility. Notice where your thoughts are going and accept what’s happening.
Whenever you are able to, return your concentration to your breathing. Continue this process until your timer rings, or until you are ready to be done.
During the body scan exercise, you will pay close attention to physical sensations throughout your body. The goal isn’t to change or relax your body, but instead to notice and become more aware of it. Don’t worry too much about how long you practice, but do move slowly.
Begin by paying attention to the sensations in your feet. Notice any sensations such as warmth, coolness, pressure, pain or a breeze moving over your skin. Slowly move up your body--to your calves, thighs, pelvis, stomach, chest, back, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, neck and finally your head. Spend some time on each of these body parts, just noticing the sensations.
After you travel up your body, begin to move back down, through each body part, until you reach your feet again. Remember: move slowly, and just pay attention.
30-minute Mindfulness Walk
Put on your headphones and head outside to practice mindfulness while walking. The Mindfulness Walk guided audio activity instructs you to focus on different parts of your experience, from each of your senses to the process of breathing, while allowing ample time to practice.
Choose a food you would like to practice with (preferably something you can hold in your hand without getting messy). Something as simple as a single raisin will work well. Move slowly through these steps, taking a moment to focus on each one.
- Before you pick up your food, notice how it looks on the table in front of you. Notice its color, how the light reflects from its surface and its size.
- Now, pick up the food. Notice the weight and how the food feels against your skin. Roll the object between your fingers, or roll it in your hand and notice its texture. Notice if it’s smooth, rough, slick, soft, firm or if it has any other properties. Hold the food to your nose and pay attention to its smell.
- Next, place the food in your mouth, on your tongue, but don’t eat it. Notice how it feels in your mouth. Does the texture feel the same as on your hand? What do you taste? Roll the food around in your mouth and pay attention to the feeling.
- Finally, begin to slowly chew your food. Notice how your teeth sink into it and how the texture is different inside. Pay close attention to the flavor and how it spreads across your tongue. Notice how your body changes--does your mouth fill with saliva? Does your tongue feel hot or cold? Continue to chew your food, paying close attention to the many sensations as you finish.
Free cellphone applications for mindfulness
The app features hundreds of meditations, enough to keep you engaged without overwhelming you with choice. They are organized into structured programs like Mindful Foundations, Sleep, Relationships and Workplace, but you have the flexibility to choose where to start and to easily jump between programs. Most meditations are in the five- to 15-minute range, with a few practices up to 45 minutes for advanced meditators.
Stop, Breathe & Think
The app features around 30 free sessions. Most of the meditations are short, up to 11 minutes, and feature simple introductory practices like Body Scan, Forgiving Yourself and Joy. You can also simply set a timer and sit in silence, learn different breathing techniques or listen to relaxing forest sounds.
The app features about a dozen meditations of different types in English and Spanish. You can learn to focus on your breath, your body or sounds; work with difficult emotions and cultivate loving-kindness in sessions ranging from three to 19 minutes.
10% Happier is “meditation for fidgety skeptics”—a relatable, no-nonsense way to learn mindfulness for people whose goals veer more toward sharpening their brains than befriending their souls. Unlike some other mindfulness apps, 10% Happier comes with a tour guide.
This mindfulness app provides the user with daily micro-meditations that last only three minutes apiece. Aura allows users the option to keep a gratitude journal, track moods throughout the day and listen to the sounds of nature.
Breethe is a free app that follows users throughout the day, from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep. It offers five-minute meditations, along with tips for overcoming pressure, feeling love and living with intention and inner peace. It is fully customizable, making it a user-friendly app to help support your practice.
With this mindfulness app, meditation sessions are organized by theme according to where you are in your day. It is widely known to be one of the best apps for anxiety and is personalized depending on what you’re up to, from waking up, commuting or taking a quick break at work to dealing with stress or having trouble falling asleep.
This app brings joy, peace and a sense of clarity to your everyday life. Millions of people agree that this app is great for meditation, mindfulness and changing your life in a positive way. Calm also includes some short meditations that you can use during a busy day.
Headspace provides the user with spoken-word exercises that are designed to be used for around 10 minutes a day. It includes short meditations for people who are on the go and even SOS meditations that are useful during times of crisis.
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn.
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- Segal, Z. V., Bieling, P., Young, T., MacQueen, G., Cooke, R., Martin, L., ... Levitan, R. D. (2010). Antidepressant monotherapy vs sequential pharmacotherapy and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or placebo, for relapse prophylaxis in recurrent depression. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67(12), pp. 1256-1264.
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