Mindfulness? What's that?
“Be mindful of the moment.” How many times have you heard that? During stressful moments of our lives, it’s not uncommon to be reminded of how important mindfulness is. But what kind of benefits does mindfulness actually have on the human body? In this blog, we take a deep dive into mindfulness to find out what it is, how you can practice it, and what positive effects it can have on your mental health.
Mindfulness: What Exactly Is It?
Mindfulness requires you to be acutely aware of your surroundings and what you’re doing in the moment. It is often a type of meditation activity that requires you to pay close attention to what your body is experiencing and sensing without trying to interpret what that means. For example, if you have feelings of anger during your mindfulness meditation, you can be aware of how you feel and its physical effects - i.e. your fast heart rate, sweaty palms, restlessness - and without analysis about those emotions. This practice allows you to get acquainted with experiences and feelings, to process them without judgment.
Mindfulness often includes deep breathing and guided imagery techniques, which requires you to close your eyes and have your mind drift off to a mental image supplied by a teacher or practitioner. If you’ve ever pulled up a mediation video on the internet and they asked you to close your eyes and think of a sprawling beach or hillside, you were practicing a guided meditation.
Examples of Mindfulness
What is happening right now as you read this article? What do you hear? What do you feel? For example, right now I hear my fingertips clacking against my keyboard, feel the warmth of my dog as she sleeps on my feet, and taste the lingering flavor of my tea.
Other examples of mindfulness include:
- Paying attention to the pacing of your breath, how it feels as air moves in and out of your body.
- Consuming your food or beverage slowly to really taste the flavors (see also My Experience With Mindfulness While Eating)
- Paying close attention to how your body feels moments after waking up. For example, do your muscles feel tight?
- Setting an intention for your day. This involves you making a commitment for a goal to achieve that day, such as dedicating yourself to be the best parent you can be or committing to eat healthier that day.
- Paying attention to how the water feels while you’re taking a shower. Take notice of how cool or warm the water is and how different of a sound it makes when it hits the shower curtain in contrast to the tiled wall or glass door.
- Fully listen to what someone else is saying without thinking of what you’re going to say next. Take in their body language, how they stand, what they're doing with their hands as they deliver different types of news.
- Pay attention to what your hands are doing. If you’re washing dishes in the sink, take notice of how the soap and water feels on your hand. Focus on the dish you’re holding; does it have any cracks or chips and if so, what does it feel like under your fingertips? If you’re folding laundry, think about the different textures of fabric and how soft or scratchy they feel.
- Feeling your foot push off the ground as you walk and how the muscles in your leg and calf feel after every step.
Mindfulness encompasses an infinite number of feelings and sensations, including simply taking stock of what’s around you. Regardless of what you’re doing, what you’re eating or where you are, you have countless opportunities to practice mindfulness.
What Are the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness?
The biggest benefit of practicing mindfulness has to do with the improvement it can have on your mental health and overall well-being. Not only can it reduce stress by allowing you to focus on what’s around you instead of your intrusive thoughts, but it has also been linked to improving the following ailments:
- Gastrointestinal issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In fact, one study published in the Neurogastroenterology & Motility medical journal found that out of the 53 women and 15 men who suffered from IBS who took part in an 8-week mindfulness program had a reduction in their symptoms.
- Heart disease. Meditation techniques reduce our cortisol hormone levels (our fight-or-flight response). This fight-or-flight response increases our heart rate, breath rate, and muscle tension, which is counteracted naturally with meditation or mindfulness. Over time, it can also lower our risk of developing heart disease later on in life.
- Chronic pain. THe experience of pain, especially if it is chronic, takes up a lot of brain space. Practicing mindfulness gives your brain space to be doing other things like daily living. It also reduces the frequency of intrusive thoughts about pain, making it more manageable.
According to some industry experts, mindfulness can help people accept their experiences, regardless of how painful they may be. This allows the mental, emotional, and physical pain to improve. Consequently, avoiding pain encourages it to continue.
How Can I Practice Mindfulness Today?
If you’re ready to practice mindfulness, here are a couple of helpful tips to keep in mind:
- Make it a priority. As with any new habit or task, commit to making time for it, regardless of how busy your schedule is. Even if you only have five minutes to spare, do whatever you can to make those five minutes count. Put away your cell phone, turn off the TV, and make sure there aren’t any distractions around you.
- Pick a designated time to practice. Even if you only have five minutes each day, make sure you pick a time when you’re able to commit to it consistently. It is recommended to practice mindfulness in the morning or before lunchtime as your mind is more awake.
- Create a space to practice. By doing this, you’re training your brain to associate a certain area of your home with this meditation technique, making it easier to get started every time you practice.
- Don’t go into this with expectations. If you’re feeling restless or struggling to say focused, that’s completely normal. Remember, you’re trying out an activity and you will not be an expert the moment you start - and that’s okay. Some days will be easier, others will be harder. Accepting where you are today is a part of the practice as long as you keep trying.
Mindfulness is a great tool you can use to manage your stress levels, focus on the present, and limit worrying about the future or about situations you can’t control. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. Find a routine that works for you and stick with it to see the best results.