Updated: Oct 12, 2020
Mindfulness is a really trendy word right now. It's used in many different contexts and can describe different, but overlapping concepts. Mindfulness can help to reduce anxiety and shame; it can help us be more self aware, and feel like we're living life to its fullest. In this post I will describe and differentiate between two types of mindfulness, explore mindfulness activities, and identify ways that mindfulness can reduce stress and improve quality of life.
The first meaning of mindfulness that I would like to dig into is really just about awareness. I sometimes assign client's the task of 'being mindful' of something, this might be self-talk, feelings of resentment, or creeping anxiety. When I do this I'm asking the client to pay attention to these experiences, just to have them on their radar. It's not really about focusing on the experience, just being aware that the experience is happening. When I ask someone to be alert to, or mindful of feelings of resentment, this is usually help to identify boundaries that aren't clear. Being mindful of negative self-talk can help us to identify thoughts that are getting in the way of achieving goals or improving mood. I sometimes ask clients to keep a count of the frequency of their negative thoughts, most people when they do this are really shocked by how frequently these negative thoughts occur. Once we become more aware of how often the thoughts occur and the overall theme of the thoughts, we can start challenging these so that they don't interfere with mood and goals. When we become more aware of something it becomes much easier to change it.
I sometimes ask clients to be mindful of positive experiences as well. I often ask clients to tune into daily moments of joy. These moments are often small and fleeting, so they are easy to miss if you aren't paying attention to them. Paying attention to positive experiences can help to balance out negative experiences. Having awareness of experiences that bring joy can also help us to create these experiences more frequently and with intention, which gives us a little more control over our moods and the direction that our thoughts and attention take.
The second way that we therapists use mindfulness is also about awareness, but it's a fuller, richer awareness of the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that occur during a particular experience; this means being fully present or fully aware of an experience and not using avoidance or distraction to diffuse our attention. Mindfulness in this context is the opposite of avoidance. The practice of being more present or more aware in a given experience is useful in a number of ways.
I incorporate mindfulness into treatment for anxiety, panic, and trauma disorders. This is a little bit counterintuitive, because initially when we pay attention to anxiety it becomes more intense. We humans don't like feeling anxious, understandably so, it's not a pleasant experience. It's very normal, but ultimately not helpful in the big picture to use avoidance to manage anxiety because over time it makes the anxiety worse. Avoidance can be cognitive or behavioral or both. When a particular thought or memory arises that makes us feel uncomfortable, we might avoid the thought by 'changing the subject' mentally, or distracting with a different thought. We also might physically avoid experiences that make us uncomfortable, this isn't necessarily a huge thing, but it if it happens often enough can significantly impact the way that we live. I'm personally terribly afraid of heights, so I avoid bridges, cliffs, tall buildings, etc. This really isn't that big of a deal because seldom do I come across these things in my daily life, even in Colorado. Someone who is very uncomfortable in crowds on the other hand, might find their world getting smaller and smaller, depending on the intensity of the discomfort and avoidance. What might start as avoiding concerts, sporting events, or other large scale events, can eventually turn into avoidance of the grocery store or the doctor's office, becoming a real problem.
When we physically or mentally step back from an experience that causes anxiety or discomfort there's typically a sense of relief as the anxiety recedes. If this occurs often enough, the cycle of build-up, followed by intense relief, can create a paired response between the feeling of anxiety and the stressor. This means that avoidance decreases anxiety in the short term, but in the long term increases the frequency and intensity of the anxious reaction to the stressful thought or experience. Marsha Linehan describes this cycle well in her book: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. The solution to this is to let our minds and bodies be fully present, or fully experience the discomfort often enough and long enough that we become accustomed to the stressor and reduce its power to make us feel anxious.
Probably you have practiced this already in some form. Think about starting a new year or semester as a student. you might have felt a little nervous the first day or two, because everything was unfamiliar, but usually by day three as long as you kept going, you probably felt fine. The same can usually be said for a new job. We might experience some tension or anxiety the first couple of days, but usually by the end of the first week it feels pretty manageable. The practice of being fully present in discomfort is tricky because if you're used to distracting or avoiding, and switch to being present, for a short period of time it's likely that anxiety will spike. This is completely normal and if you allow yourself to 'ride it out' it will start to recede naturally without avoiding or distracting, and over time the stressor will lose its edge. You may never become completely comfortable with the stressor, but the frequency and intensity of the discomfort should decline.
Mindfulness used in this way can also help to increase feelings of enjoyment, satisfaction, and joy. By being fully present in positive experiences, we get to more fully savor these. The practice of mindful eating is used this way. When we take the time to give each bite of food our full attention, we enjoy it a lot more. We also eat slower and are more likely to notice when we're full, so can eat more intuitively.
Any activity can be a mindfulness activity if we give it our full attention. Meditation, knitting, cooking, artistic activities, playing a musical instrument, really any activity can be done mindfully, if we are fully present in it. Any activity that we allow ourselves to be totally absorbed in will naturally push other physical sensations and cognitive experiences out of our field of attention or conscious awareness. This can offer a respite from our own thoughts and worries. When we're in this state hours can pass like minutes, time speeds up and slows down all at once. I notice this when I'm practicing yoga. I have to be mindful because if I get distracted I fall over, but by the end of my practice I usually feel a strange mixture of relaxed and energized. I hear very similar experiences from individuals who practice martial arts. Mindfulness activities used in this way enhance positive experiences and can be an excellent way of managing stress and anxiety. I'm very interested to hear how others have used mindfulness activities, or practiced being fully present in their own experiences. Please share in the comments. If you would like to learn more about how mindfulness can effect mood please consider these books:
Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright
Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder by Marsha Linehan Ph.D.