In therapy we talk about mindfulness a lot and recommend it, but what is it exactly and how can it help with your mental health?
Mindfulness is the perspective and mindset of being present moment focused in the here and now. It’s being aware of your current experience, your mood, and current thoughts. This mindset and perspective is used in mental health therapy to help individuals with additional insight, awareness, and as a skill to help manage their mood and thoughts.
In therapy we talk about mindfulness being a buffer to help respond to a current situation with only our present thoughts and feelings.
Many times, when we are experiencing a difficult situation, our mind naturally goes into “association mode” where it will remember a similar situation and we will bring up those past thoughts and feelings, sometimes not even being aware of it happening.
Think of a situation that you became upset and responded in that situation, and then afterwards felt that your response was more intense than the situation called for.
I’ve definitely done that and when I reflected on it, I realized I had brought my feelings from the past to the current situation and responded with not only my feelings of now, but also all my feelings from the past.
When we look into the past, this can bring up feelings from our past, which is usually where thoughts and feelings of depression come from and when we think of the future, that’s where our “what if” thoughts come from that create anxiety. This is why practicing mindfulness and being present moment focused is important to our overall mental health.
Mindfulness challenges us to be present in the here and now so we can better identify how we want to respond to a current situation related to our present moment, thoughts, and feelings. This is instead of thinking of the past or future and responding with feelings and thoughts related to those circumstances or time frames.
When we focus on anything other than the present, our mind becomes distracted and we’re not fully engaged in our present activity. Our mind does this quite easily in today’s society since we are trained to multitask and do multiple things at once. But how engaged are we really in those activities if we are split with multiple tasks, thoughts, and feelings?
So how do we practice mindfulness?
When we practice mindfulness and are present moment focused, we want to practice it non-judgmentally. Meaning we are simply present and the experience just is. There is no good or bad with the current experience.
Allow yourself to be only in that moment and redirect all other thoughts and feelings to another time. Don’t ignore the thoughts or feelings, acknowledge them and then redirect them so you can focus on your present moment.
Let’s look at an example of practicing eating with mindfulness:
Next time you eat, try to be fully engaged with your food. Pay attention to the thoughts that naturally come up, feelings, and use your senses of taste, smell, feel, sound, and sight to be fully in the moment of eating.
Pay attention to the ingredient, texture, tastes, smell, and the way that your food looks. If other thoughts come up, like associating it to other food you have had or thinking about future tasks to do, that’s okay, that’s normal! But challenge yourself to remain focused in your present moment and redirect those thoughts to focus on them after you are done enjoying your food.
With practicing mindfulness you will have FULL experiences in the moment with full awareness of your thoughts and feelings.
Practicing mindfulness, will allow us to be present moment to fully experience our current situation, potentially decrease anxiety and depression, and it will allow us a window in time to decide how to respond to our current situation.
Just like any other exercise or tool, it takes practice and I would recommend challenging yourself to practice mindfulness at least 5 minutes a day with being fully present in your experience. Practice being aware of your experience, your thoughts, feelings, surroundings, and do it non-judgmentally.
You can practice mindfulness with things you already do on a daily basis.
Try this approach then next time you eat, go for a walk, listen to music, watch a show, art, exercise, or any other activity you enjoy.
You can also use some helpful applications to help get started with practicing mindfulness such as Headspace and Calm.