What Is Mindfulness?

Parents and caretakers, you may have heard the term “mindfulness”, but what does it mean, and how can it help you? Mindfulness has many benefits and can really help us in times of stress: Karla Rivera, Psy.D

What Is Mindfulness?

As we continue to face these difficult times, “mindfulness” has become a buzzword, but what is it? The main tenet of mindfulness is being “present”. What does this mean, and how can it help? Being present means we are observing ourselves in a given moment. We are paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, and that’s all. We aren’t making judgements such as “I shouldn’t think or feel this way”, we are just stopping and taking note of what we are experiencing. We are being self-aware. 

When we are present, we are fully attending to what we are doing.  This is the opposite of multitasking, or functioning on autopilot, where we are just going through the motions of our day.  When we are on autopilot we do things like set down our phone or keys and forget where they are five minutes later. We walk into a room, but suddenly can’t remember what we came in there for. Sound familiar? This occurs because our thoughts are somewhere else. Maybe we are thinking about something that happened yesterday, or what we need to get done in an hour, or tomorrow instead of living in the moment we’re in.

Being on autopilot or multitasking actually makes us less effective and more stressed. We miss out on what is right in front of us. When we are being mindful we slow down; we are calmer. We get more out of life and are happier. 

How Mindfulness Helps Us to Be Calm

When we are aware of what we are thinking and feeling, we can learn to regulate our emotions.  What does this mean? We can recognize stress in our bodies, and we can recognize how our thoughts and feelings are causing this stress. Being aware of our thoughts and feelings begins to allow us to control them as opposed to them controlling us. 

For example, let’s say your child hasn’t gotten homework done after being asked by you several times. You see your child sitting and playing video games instead.  You think, “this kid never listens; he/she is lazy and disrespectful!”. These thoughts lead you to anger. You feel your body tensing up, heat flows through you, and your heartbeat is racing. How might you react?  

Now imagine the same scenario, but instead when you see your child playing the video games, you pause. You take some deep, calming breaths and feel your body relax. You observe yourself thinking “this child never listens; he/she is lazy and disrespectful”.  Now that you are calm, you can ask yourself if that’s really true? Does your child really “never” listen?”  Is your child trying to hurt you or make you angry by playing video games? Probably not. 

What else might be going on with your child? Are they frustrated after a long day of virtual learning? Do they need a break? What is causing your child to act this way? These thoughts may lead you to feel compassion instead of anger for your child. Now how might you react?  Which way of thinking will make the situation better for you and your child?  When you are calm, you will likely approach your child in a way you both will feel good about. This is the way mindful practices can help us in our everyday lives, and they can be even more helpful in times of high stress. 

The Health Benefits of Mindfulness: Mindfulness has been shown to reduce pain, tension and stress. It has been effective in helping to treat various forms of addiction and in reducing depression and anxiety. It improves cognitive function by improving attention, memory, and our ability to learn.  It’s even been shown to improve cardiac function! The benefits of mindfulness are clear, but living mindfully takes practice. Here is how to begin.

Being “One Minded”:  During your week practice being “one minded”, an exercise recommended by Matthew Mckay, author of The Dialectical Therapy Skills Workbook.  Here is how the exercise works: 

As you go through your week, give your full attention to whatever you are doing. When you eat, eat. Don’t stand at the kitchen counter or eat in your car. Sit down and focus on your meal. Experience all the tastes and sensations of your meal. When you go on a walk, walk. Feel the ground beneath your feet and take in with your senses all the sights, sounds, and smells around you. Don’t walk, but also check your phone, or busy yourself with thoughts of everything you need to get done after your walk.  Be present in the moment you’re in. Try this several times throughout the week as you engage in activities. You will probably find that you enjoy your experiences much more when you are present.

Practice Mindful Breathing & Meditation: Mindful breathing and meditation can help us to become more in touch with our bodies, what state we’re in, and serves to help us relax and be calm. Mindful breathing exercises and meditations can be found on sites such as Calm.com, Headspace, or Mayoclinic.org.  Find ones that work for you and give you a sense of peace. Try incorporating mindful breathing and meditation into your life on a regular basis. 

As you bring these practices into your life, they will become easier, and you will experience the many benefits of mindfulness. Remember during times like these, there are many things we can’t control. What we can control is how we cope with overwhelming feelings and take care of ourselves, and mindfulness is a powerful tool.