Mindfulness is a hot topic these days. Actually, it’s been a hot topic for a very long time, but it fades and reappears on the public radar off and on. It seems to gain increased popularity when times are particularly difficult and people are looking for ways to cope. (I actually have no evidence for that statement. It may say more about me than public opinion.) What I do have evidence for is the increasing amount of research that is being done on mindfulness and its benefits. And based on that research, mindfulness techniques are being integrated into more mainstream physical and mental health treatments.
So what is mindfulness?
Sometimes understanding a concept best begins with understanding its opposite. Mindlessness, therefore, might be described as moving through life without conscious thought, barreling through, making the motions, but not really paying attention. Have you ever driven somewhere only to get there and not remember any of the drive? Done a task like washing the dishes with no actual attention to what you’re doing? Taken two showers in a row because you were so deep in thought you forgot you’d just showered (like I did recently)? Those are examples of a lack of mindfulness and even the most mindful among us do them sometimes. Mindfulness, in contrast, is being present, conscious, and thoughtful in every moment – whether you are having an argument with your best friend, playing with a puppy, hiking in the mountains, or taking out the garbage.
Being present all of the time is much easier said than done. One of the ways to learn mindfulness is through meditation, most commonly sitting for a period of time and focusing on your breath. If you’ve done this, you know how hard it is. If you haven’t, give it a try right now. Just for a minute. How’d it go? Did your mind wander off to what you’re going to have for lunch and then that little café you had lunch in last week that was so good and then that couple you saw there arguing and then to wondering how your partner’s day is going and then thinking maybe you should text him or her and apologize for being a jerk this morning and then – whoops, the minute’s up!
That is a common experience in mindfulness practice. Sometimes we think when our mind wanders we’re doing it wrong and we scold ourselves. Why can’t I get my mind to quiet down? Because it never will. Stopping your thoughts is not the point. Noticing that the mind has wandered and gently bringing your focus back to the breath is the point. Sitting with whatever thoughts or emotions or stories come up without getting caught up and getting carried away in them is the point. In that moment when you notice what’s happening and return to the breath you are mindful and awake.
If it’s that hard to do, then why do we care?
Remember that research I mentioned above? We are finding benefits of mindfulness techniques for a number of things. For example, dealing with the negative effects of stress and stressful life events. Stress can do nasty things to us. Younger people tend to report more stressful life events, but some research has found that older adults are more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress even at the same level of exposure. Those negative effects can include behavioral problems like excessive drinking, depression and anxiety, and difficulties with the tasks of daily living like cleaning, shopping, and self-care. Mindfulness is one way of coping with stress. By learning to pay attention to the present moment and acknowledge what’s happening in a receptive and non-judgmental way, we can learn to react to stressful events in less damaging ways. It doesn’t mean we ignore what’s happening (quite the opposite) and doesn’t mean we don’t do anything in response. But changing the way we react to the event seems to be more important in predicting emotional health than the event itself.
Not only are higher levels of mindfulness associated with less effects effect of stress on mental health (according to research by Cindy de Frias and Erum Whyne), but Mary Davis and colleagues have found that mindfulness awareness training is effective over time in improving daily reactions to chronic pain. We’ll talk more about what this kind of practice entails in the next post.
In the meantime, are you curious about your current level of mindfulness? The Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale is often used to measure the mindfulness of research study participants. You can measure your own level of mindfulness here. (In case you’re wondering, my score was only a little below average despite the double shower incident).
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