What is Mindfulness?

What is Mindfulness?

The officially accepted definition of mindfulness, penned by Jon Kabat-Zinn is “…awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” In my experience it is the non-judgment piece that is critical for success. It’s one thing to pay attention to the present, but to bring a curious attitude to it that does not make value judgments can change how you experience that moment. Let’s compare two examples:

 

  1. A) Jane is worrying about a big interview that she has coming up and predicting that she is going to blow it. This makes her feel anxious. She gets caught up in these thoughts about the future and the more she focuses on them, the worse the anxiety gets. She then starts to get frustrated with the anxiety thinking, “I wish I didn’t feel this way.” This causes her to feel even worse.

 

  1. B) Jane is worrying about a big interview that she has coming up and predicting that she is going to blow it. This makes her feel anxious. She decides to focus on her breathing and let go of any predictions about the future. She finds her mind periodically jumping back to these predictive thoughts, but each time calmly recognizes it and relaxes back into her breathing. She starts to bring a curious attitude to the feelings of anxiety, and notices that there are a few different physiological sensations such as a tight stomach and tingling in her arms. She lets those be, recognizing that while they are uncomfortable, they aren’t too serious. She thinks, “It’s normal to have a little anxiety before a big interview” and allows herself to accept the little bit of anxiety that is left over.

 

Example A is how most of us go through life. Example B presents a new alternative that we can practice which has the potential to drastically reduce our suffering.

 

How can it Help with Anxiety?

As you can see in the examples above, practicing mindfulness has the potential to reduce anxiety, or at the very least reduce the additional distress that we cause ourselves by fighting and struggling with our anxious thoughts and feelings. Anxiety, like every other emotion, has a tendency to fade away if we stop providing it with fuel. Negative and catastrophic thoughts fuel anxiety. Bodily tension fuels anxiety.

Physiological markers such as rapid breathing fuel anxiety. Mindfulness helps us learn how to cut off these fuel sources.

Anxiety arises for any of the following reasons:

1) Something reminds you of a scary or traumatic experience from the past

2) Something in the present bothers you and you respond with aversion and/or catastrophic interpretation

3) You are preoccupied with potential outcomes of the future

By now you might be starting to see how mindfulness can address all 3 of these. In the next section I will share specific mindfulness techniques to address each of the 3.

How do you Practice Mindfulness?

There are daily mindfulness practices that I recommend you practice such as meditating on the breath or doing a body scan. If you were trying to learn piano it would be very important to practice scales and songs every day. In the same way, if you would like to be proficient in mindfulness, daily practice is important. Even a couple minutes per day helps a lot. If you can build a basic foundation of mindfulness skills then it will be much easier to use these in-the-moment techniques that I am about to share.

The first thing to do is determine if your anxiety is being caused by reason 1, 2, or 3 from the section above. Once you have determined that, try the corresponding technique below:

1) Take a deep breath in and slowly let it out, relaxing your muscles as you do so. Start by reminding yourself that whatever the painful memory is that has come to mind, it is not what is happening to you currently. Extend a kind thought to the past version of yourself that experienced this event, such as “I hear you and I’m here for you.” Look around you and do the following: notice 5 things you can see in your environment, 2-3 things you can hear, 1 thing you can smell, possibly even one thing you can taste. Press your feet into the floor and feel the sensations on the soles of your feet. Next, turn your attention to your breathing. Try to gently extend your exhale. You can close your eyes if you want, or keep them open but soft. Continue focusing on your breathing and practice allowing thoughts, feelings, and sensations to just come and go while gently maintaining your attention on the breath.

2) Take a deep breath in and slowly let it out, relaxing your muscles as you do so. Ask yourself if what’s making you anxious is something that requires decisive action. If so, make a plan and start taking small steps to address the issue. If not, remind yourself that fighting against what you can’t control and struggling to push away your thoughts and feelings will only make things worse. Try repeating the following statement to yourself: “Right now it’s like this.” Try to let go of any mental or physical resistance as you focus on this phrase and relax into the moment. Remind yourself that this will pass as you continue to open up to your present moment experience and allow your breathing to naturally slow down.

3) Take a deep breath in and slowly let it out, relaxing your muscles as you do so. Notice the fact that you are predicting the future, and remind yourself that you don’t know what will actually happen. Take a brief moment to reflect on previous instances where you may have predicted catastrophic outcomes that didn’t come true. Turn your attention to your breathing and allow it to get deeper and slower. Keep your attention on the breath, and watch your mind as it will inevitably return to thoughts about the future. When it does, simply label this as “predicting” or “catastrophizing” or “fortune telling” or any label that makes sense to you. Return the focus to the breath and repeat this process as your mind continually strays away.

I hope these practices can be helpful to you, as I know how painful anxiety can be. The more you practice these, the more easily they will come to you. In time you will become very adept at coping with anxiety whenever it arises.

 

Take Care,

Mike

 

About the Author:

Mike Comparetto is a therapist based in Asheville, NC specializing in treatment for anxiety and substance use. Primarily utilizing CBT, he offers several different therapy modalities to custom-tailor therapy to each individual. If you would like more information, please feel free to reach out!

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