Mindfulness: What is It & How Can It Help You?

By Dr. Erin Kardel, NeuroScience

With the constant barrage of thoughts, feelings, and sensations we experience every day, it is easy to understand how we can get overwhelmed and reactive at times. It is often difficult for many of us to just notice and observe what our mind is doing rather than to get emotionally triggered by a particular thought or feeling. Mindfulness is a tool that can help us to pay attention differently so that we can better control how we respond to both pleasant and unpleasant states, and it can give us a rest from the busy activity of the mind.

So, what is mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is responsible for developing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), has stated that “mindfulness is paying attention to something, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” It is essentially the ability for someone to see what is going on in their head and not get carried away with it. This is done by helping us to take a step back, gain awareness (of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and surroundings), get some distance and perspective, and not engage in negative thought patterns. Additionally, mindfulness has to do with focusing one’s attention and awareness on the present moment. This means that you are practicing not being absorbed by the past that has already happened or a future that is still to come.

Mindfulness can be a powerful tool to help you with a wide range of concerns. Whether you are teaching yourself or your child mindfulness, the purpose is to have the skills to develop an awareness of both inner and outer experiences. Research on mindfulness has shown a variety of positive benefits of making it a part of your day-to-day routine. Brain imaging studies have confirmed that daily mindfulness practice has the ability to change brain structure as well as brain functioning. Neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to change itself, has shown positive neuroplastic changes can be triggered through mindfulness. Fundamentally, this means that our thoughts and where we place our attention can change our brain’s physical structure, which is pretty amazing. Taken together, practicing mindfulness can help to improve mental clarity, self-regulation, mood, well-being, concentration, sleep, and much more.

Mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways. There is formal practice, such as scheduled meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises, but there are also ways to practice during daily activities, such as driving, eating, and walking. The goal is to slow down in the moment — pause, stop, take a relaxing breath, and notice/observe your surroundings periodically throughout the day. One way to practice living more mindfully is to use your senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound) to anchor and ground you in the present. For example, when you are out for a walk, notice, and pay attention to what you hear or see, such as the birds overhead or the trees swaying in the wind. Or, if you are sitting down to eat, slow down and notice the smell or texture of the food.

As mentioned above, meditation is a great way to practice mindfulness by setting aside time to experience and notice the present moment. For example, in breathing meditation, your breath can be used as an anchor to the here and now. If your mind wanders (which is normal), the goal of this exercise is to simply acknowledge the mind wandering and gently bring your focus back to your breath. An easy way for children to practice this is by doing ‘belly breathing.’ They can lie down and focus their attention on the rise and fall of their stomach as they breathe in and out. When you or your child practice mindfulness, you may notice yourself feeling relaxed, which is wonderful. However, the goal is to be alert, present, and mindful of emotions so that you can attend to the feelings you are experiencing. This may mean experiencing emotions or physical sensations that you do not like. If you find that your attention is focused on unwanted or distressing thoughts, that’s alright. Try to remember the goal is to observe those thoughts and let them pass simply.

With technology, several apps are available on smartphones and programs and geared for children, adolescents, and adults to learn and practice these skills. To achieve the most benefit from mindfulness, the skills must be practiced and incorporated into daily life. Choose a time to practice, so it becomes a habit and integrated into your daily routine.

Although we know mindfulness is good for us, it is something that we often do not do because of how busy and hectic our lives get. If it is difficult to find time to practice, start small, and gradually build in more. If we take the time to invest in ourselves and do things that make us more aware and present, this will ultimately lead to positive changes in our health and behavior. Do keep in mind that mindfulness is not a cure-all and will not rid you of unpleasant thoughts or feelings. It is meant to be a tool to help you with your emotional, physical, and mental well-being by allowing you to respond differently to unhelpful thoughts and feelings and allow you to be more grounded and present in the here and now. This is something that we can all have, but we have to take the time to practice it. So today, take a moment to check in with yourself and see what you notice and observe.

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