Mindfulness: The (not so) secret mental health treatment

“Make the present moment your friend rather than your enemy. Because many people live habitually as if the present moment were an obstacle that they need to overcome in order to get to the next moment. And imagine living your whole life like that, where always this moment is never quite right, not good enough because you need to get to the next one. That is continuous stress.”

- Dan Harris, 10% Happier

What if I told you a proven way to reduce stress, strengthen your brain, improve your mood and decrease symptoms of anxiety, depression; even chronic pain? All of this, without taking medication or paying a lot of money to a professional expert? Does it sound impossible? It's really not. It's mindfulness!

In the book, "10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works" Dan Harris, writes about his experience implementing mindfulness into his daily life and the overall positive effects on his well-being. One of the reasons that I appreciate this book is because Dan Harris is not a clinician. He is a news anchor. He hasn’t studied psychology, written a book and solicitated business for his practice. He is just a regular guy who made a conscious effort to practice mindfulness, reaped the many rewards and wrote a book to share his positive experience.

During my research on anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia, depression and many more areas; I always find the same treatment suggestion: mindfulness. However, I find that in my practice, clients are resistant to even attempting mindfulness skills. I have a few theories on why people are resistant. Perhaps, it has a stigma. When people hear “mindfulness” they often picture a meditating buddhist monk. Yes, that is one form of mindfulness but it’s not the only technique.

Others have tried and find that it’s too difficult. I understand completely. For years I thought that I was just unable to slow down my mind and focus on the present. However, I’ve found ways that actually do work for me. Yes, mindfulness is hard. It’s exercise for your mind. Similar to lifting weights, it is difficult at first but with time you’ll see improvement.

Here are 5 simple ways you can practice mindfulness:

1. Guided meditation

There are plenty of YouTube videos or apps that will you assist you in a guided meditation. You can even pick how long to practice. If you are just beginning, I recommend starting with 3 minutes. It will feel like forever, but it’s not. As you practice, increase the time.

2. Breathe

That’s right, just breathe. Set a timer and focus on one area of your breath: the air going in and out of your mouth, the raising of your chest, the sensation in your lungs… you choose. If your mind starts racing, bring it back to your breath. I like this because you can do it anywhere. It’s a nice technique to practice if we are feeling overwhelmed around other people.

3. Grounding Focusing on your senses. What are 5 things you can see? What are 4 things you can hear? 3 things you can feel? 2 things you can smell? 1 thing you can taste. This is one that I appreciate because you can practice if you are feeling overwhelmed in a public place. It has helped me to slow down my heart rate in difficult situations. This is my favorite technique to practice at overcrowded children’s museums with 3 small children.

4. Mindful walk in nature Thich Nhat Hanh describes this as, ‘Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.’ Most of us take walking for granted. Slow down and pay attention to the actual process. Focus on your feet hitting the ground. Are your steps heavy or light? Look around you, look at the different colors or textures. What can you hear? Are there birds, waves, or crunching of leaves? Pay attention to all of your senses as you engage with the world around you.

5. Take a Mindful Shower

This can look a couple of different ways. When I get stressed, I get hot. I like to take a cold shower to “flip the switch” of my brain. (This is something I’ll probably make a separate blog post about) Don’t feel like you need to do this, you can take a warm shower too. While you are in there, pay attention to your senses again: the temperature of the water, the smell of the soap, the sound of the water hitting the floor… When we are focused on our senses, we aren’t thinking about all of our stressors.

If you are new to mindfulness, remember to give yourself grace as you attempt these techniques. If you have spent a lifetime of constantly thinking of the next thing, it will take time to slow down and focus on your experiences right now. Remember, it will get easier with time and practice. The greatest rewards don't usually come easy and the rewards of mindfulness are limitless!

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