You've probably heard of mindfulness before, whether through social media, books, or another health and wellness blog. However, you might not know exactly what it is, or why it's so important to managing stress and maintaining a positive attitude --- both of which help you stay healthier longer.
Mindfulness, in essence, is a way to face a situation in its entirety by being fully present in the moment. Mindfulness is a helpful factor in stress response, a conscious response that allows a person to maintain better control over emotions while preserving a greater sense of calm and balance. The practice of mindfulness helps to create awareness of the space between stimulus and response -- in other words, between what's causing you to react and how you actually decide to react to it. This gives you more freedom and distance from the situation, allowing you to take a step back and really assess all sides of something before you make a conscious, logical decision about it. In short, mindfulness prevents you from allowing your emotions to make decisions for you. It's a way to turn the tables on your feelings -- letting you control them, and not the other way around.
Mindfulness has multiple components, or attitudes, that can help you reshape the way you look at a situation in order to assess it from a more removed standpoint. These include:
- Witnessing, or seeing and absorbing information without constantly judging it.
- Being present, or not thinking about or striving towards getting or doing something else while you should be paying attention to the situation at hand.
- Acknowledging what's happening. This is different from accepting what's going on -- when you accept, you stop trying to make changes, but when you acknowledge, you're realizing that something is truly an issue so that you gather information to make a decision about it.
- Being patient.
- Having an attitude of self-reliance -- not depending on others to make decisions for you or determine what you should think, do, or feel.
- Finally, the "beginner's mind," or "growth mindset." In short, this means maintaining an open, fresh attitude toward any given task or problem, and not allowing yourself to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.
Sometimes, mindfulness is associated with meditation. While meditation can help with mindfulness by focusing on thoughts and feelings in the moment, meditation and mindfulness are not the same thing. Meditation is something you set aside time for in the day, separate from all your other tasks, while mindfulness is the practice of staying present and aware throughout those tasks. Mindfulness is a way of thinking, and when you practice it, you can engage in it in every moment, place, and aspect of your life.
There's a deep connection between mindfulness and stress reduction, and, as a result, there are over eight hundred mindfulness-based stress reduction programs run by trained professionals. The main goal of these programs is to learn to incorporate mindfulness into daily life in order to be able to deal with life challenges better, reducing overall stress levels through habitual practice. In addition, several meditation practices that focus on mindfulness are available, and studies have shown that mindfulness meditation programs reduced levels of anxiety, depression, and pain among participants.
In order to maintain mindfulness, you have to take good care of your brain. It needs to be able to create new neural pathways in order to help reshape your thinking and your emotional responses. This is called neuroplasticity. People of any age can develop these new pathways -- though, oftentimes, it gets more difficult as you get older.
Let's learn a bit about which things are good for your brain and which things aren't.
Here are some things that impair your ability to form new thought pathways:
- Multitasking is the opposite of mindfulness. Studies show that when we multitask we shift our attention rapidly from one task to another. This habituates the brain to short attention spans and shallow thinking. To make good decisions about important and difficult matters we need to develop the ability to think longer and more deeply. So if you have to multitask try not to do it too often nor too long.
- Addiction to distractions. Media, phones, watches, et cetera -- the modern era is simply rife with things that can pull your brain from the task at hand. When you need to get things done, put away your phone, take off your watch, turn off all your notifications -- whatever it takes to help you focus, do it. Constantly checking media is just another form of multitasking, and multitasking generally is a bad idea.
- Stress overdose. Being extremely stressed out definitely does not help you step back and focus from a removed perspective. If your stress levels are too high you will be unable to be mindful. So some of you may want to start with stress management before mindfulness.
- Sleep deprivation. This one's pretty self-explanatory. If you don't get enough sleep your brain function becomes severely impaired. Check out the Sleep section of my website for more information on how to improve your sleep patterns.
- Too little physical exercise. Exercise isn't just good for your body, but for your brain too. Working out allows your brain time to recover from difficult mental tasks. For tips on exercise and ideas for ways to get moving, check out my Exercise page.
- Too little healthy recreation. Doing things you enjoy not only helps reduce stress in general, but it also gets your brain on the right track to allow you to practice mindfulness. Spending time in nature, learning a fun new skill, or going for a swim or a leisurely bike ride are all examples of healthy recreation.
- Not enough mental downtime. Working too long or too hard at a mental task can be detrimental to your brain health. So when you feel mentally fatigued at some task then take a break and do something else: shift to an easier task, or take a break watching a movie or listening to music, or do something with your hands like art, knitting or woodworking.
- Frequent interruptions. This ties into the "addiction to distractions" effect: your brain needs breaks, but it also needs to be able to maintain focus well. If you're always switching from one thing to another, or if you feel ready to take a break after only 15 minutes then you will find yourself unable to deal effectively with difficult situations. As a rule, try not to switch between multiple tasks quickly -- don't read an article for work for fifteen minutes, then go reply to your emails, then read for another fifteen minutes and then check off a couple to-dos --- you get the point. Take things one task at a time.
Now let's learn about some things that help your brain:
- Taking brain breaks. Your mind needs time to wander -- maybe a long time, depending on how long you've been focusing on something. Your brain continues to work on problems even during breaks after intense periods of mental focus, so sometimes you need a good twenty to thirty minutes to fully be able to get back to what you were doing. Think of it as an aftershock of difficult mental work -- you need to let it wear off before taking up your task once more.
- Creativity. Creativity creates room for shifts in perspective, and it can often help your brain relax. Not everyone is an artist or a writer, but nearly all people have something creative they enjoy, whether it's bullet journalling, sewing, doing crafts, reading, cooking or baking, just to name a few examples. Be sure to set aside some time on occasion for activities like these.
- Strategic thinking. Though it might sound like a sharp contrast to creativity, both are good for your brain -- as long as you balance them correctly. Strategic thinking provides a view of the big picture, focusing on questions like, "What's important? What's really happening? What's meaningful here? What's the priority? What's the lesson?" Activities like chess or other strategy games, puzzles, or even reading a book with a complicated plot can engage the strategic areas of your brain.
- Lastly, gratitude. Being grateful not only reduces stress levels short-term, but makes you happier in general if you practice it on a regular basis. I recommend keeping a small journal, whether paper or digital, and writing a few things you're grateful for each day -- right when you get up, before you go to bed, or both.
Mindfulness is an important, even crucial, part of reducing stress levels long-term and improving your life as a whole. It helps you make justified decisions, control your emotions, and find new perspectives on difficult situations. No matter what life throws at you, mindfulness will help you to address it without getting carried away by your feelings and make the best decision possible. You're never too young nor too old to practice mindfulness.
In future articles I will deal with some of these subjects more fully, so be sure to check back!
Natalia Johnsen, M.D.