We hear the term mindfulness ALL THE TIME. It’s become a popular buzzword in the health and wellness space, but do you know what it really is? In all honesty, I didn’t. Is it meditation? Is it yoga? Is it coloring books? For a long time, I wondered what exactly is mindfulness and how do we do it?
Lately, I’ve been learning a lot about this topic and in this post I’m gonna break it down and discuss what mindfulness even is (hint: it’s not as complicated as you might think), why you should practice it, and a few different ways you can go about doing this.
What Mindfulness Is Not
Have you ever finished reading a page in a book only to realize that you have no idea what you just read? Or rushed through a task and not remembered the steps you took to complete it? Or even unknowingly come to the last bite of a meal without noticing?
This is NOT mindfulness! These are examples of mindlessness. That is, engaging in an activity while the mind is completely distracted. Sometimes called being on autopilot, we have the ability to get things done without devoting our full attention (hello multitasking!).
Usually, when we’re engaged in mindlessness we become lost in our thoughts, contemplating the future or replaying the past. And you might be surprised to learn that we spend a large portion of our lives in this state. According to a Harvard study, 47% of the time people are thinking about something other than what they’re doing at the moment.
That’s almost 50% of our lives spent distracted by our thoughts. Imagine all the things we’re missing out on in this mindless state!
Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. It allows you to separate from all of those wandering thoughts and become aware of the present moment.
There are many definitions for mindfulness out there, but my favorite comes from Headspace, the popular meditation and mindfulness app:
“Mindfulness is the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment — free from distraction or judgment, and aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them.”
Simply put, mindfulness is paying attention. It’s noticing what’s going on around you and within you, without getting wrapped up in any thoughts or feelings.
The goal is to be able to observe whatever you’re experiencing and accept it without making any judgments (labeling as good or bad) and instead, take an attitude of curiosity and kindness.
For example, someone cuts you off on the highway. You start feeling that anger bubbling up and you’re about to go off. The mindful way to approach this situation is to take a step back and notice what’s going on for you in that moment. What are you feeling- physically and emotionally? What sensations are you experiencing? What are you thinking (yes, try to think about what you’re thinking!)?
When you consider these questions it brings you back to the present, rather than staying stuck on that terrible driver and letting your thoughts spiral down and affect your entire mood. You are better able to control your emotions, instead of them controlling you.
It’s no surprise that mindfulness is a very effective tool for managing mood-related issues like depression, anxiety, and stress!
Mindfulness is not only useful when you’re experiencing extreme emotions like anger. It’s also used to find joy in the simple, often mundane, tasks we do every day. Like going for a walk, eating, even washing the dishes. Tuning in to the sensations you’re experiencing – the sights, the sounds, the feelings, the tastes – will bring about a whole new appreciation for these activities.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness is both a practice and a way of life. Many people believe that mindfulness is synonymous with meditation and this is not the case. As we discussed above, mindfulness is simply staying present and engaging in whatever you’re doing at the time.
However, there are activities that allow you to practice mindfulness and help you to become more mindful in your everyday life. Yoga and exercise, eating, even coloring (and other forms of creative expression) are examples of these. But the most popular mindfulness practice is meditation.
Mindfulness meditation gives us time and space to focus intentionally on the present moment, put our guard down, and tune into the body and mind. It’s a mental training practice that has been shown to literally alter the brain! Research shows that consistent meditation can cause the amygdala, the region of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response and control center for stress and depression, to SHRINK. Pretty cool!
So if you want to become more mindful in your daily life, meditation is the best place to start. I find that doing a guided meditation or using an app is a great format to learn and practice mindfulness meditation. My absolute favorite is the Calm app. I also like Insight Timer and Headspace (great for beginners) apps.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Hopefully, by now I’ve piqued your interest and you’re a little intrigued by this whole mindfulness thing. Well, you’ll be even more interested to learn about the many benefits of mindfulness on health, wellness, and overall quality of life.
Although it’s been written off by some as a spiritual, New Age practice, mindfulness has been widely researched and its benefits scientifically proven.
One fascinating study identified mindfulness as the single most important factor in determining your level of happiness and life satisfaction (once all basic needs for survival are met)! Researchers found that people who focused on their present moment experience (i.e. who were being mindful) were significantly happier than those whose minds wandered away from the present moment, regardless of the nature of their thoughts (positive, negative, or neutral).
I don’t know about you, but happiness is something I can always use more of!
But increased happiness is just one of the benefits mindfulness researchers have uncovered. Countless studies have been conducted revealing the powerful benefits of mindfulness on physical and mental health. Mindfulness has been shown to:
- Lower stress and cortisol levels
- Reduce anxiety and depression
- Improve sleep and increases energy levels
- Strengthen immune functioning
- Improve memory, focus, and attention
- Increase empathy and compassion
- Help with pain management
- Improve confidence and emotional resilience
How to Practice Mindfulness
As we discussed above, meditation is the most popular and perhaps the most effective way to develop an intentional mindfulness practice. One that will spill over into your everyday life.
Meditation has become a very meaningful daily practice for me. I have experienced many changes in my mood, my mindset, and yes even my level of happiness and positivity! Meditation is something I highly recommend as a self-development and self-care tool.
However, mindfulness doesn’t always have to be this formal. There are many ways you can infuse mindfulness into anything you do or experience. At any given moment you can ask yourself these questions to get off autopilot and bring your attention to the current moment:
- What do I notice going on around me?
- What feelings am I experiencing right now?
- What was I just thinking about?
- What physical sensations am I experiencing (tingling, pressure, discomfort, etc.)?
Remember to keep an approach of nonjudgment and kindness. Don’t attach any meaning, just observe.
Here are a few other mindfulness tools and techniques to try…
At any time throughout the day stop and take a few deep breaths. Pay close attention to your body. Can you feel the cool air passing through your nostrils? Can you feel the expansion in your chest and abdomen? Tune in to the act of breathing. Try to keep your focus on the breath to help minimize wandering thoughts.
One useful tool that I use to remind myself to take these breathing breaks is the Mindfulness Bell App. Every two hours (or whatever interval you choose), a gentle bell will ring reminding me to check in with myself and breathe. It’s very helpful and keeps you consistent.
Try eating your next snack or meal mindfully. Remove all distractions and focus just on your food. Slow down and employ all of your senses-see it, smell it, feel it. When you put it in your mouth, really savor it. Chew it slowly, noticing the textures, the taste, and how it feels in your mouth.
The 5 Senses Technique
This grounding mindfulness exercise can be done almost anywhere. It challenges you to notice what you’re experiencing right then and there through all of your 5 senses. Start by taking a few deep breaths. Then acknowledge:
- 5 things you can see (ex. phone, table, person walking by).
- 4 things you can feel/touch (ex. chair you’re sitting on, the ground under your feet, pen in hand).
- 3 things you can hear (ex. clock, music, wind, distant voices).
- 2 things you can smell (flowers, laundry detergent, lotion on hand).
- 1 thing you can taste (ex. Gum, tea, lingering taste of a recent meal)
Do this slowly, one sense at a time. You will feel yourself becoming more peaceful and mindful as you go through each sense, step by step.
These are just a few of the many ways you can practice mindfulness and incorporate it into your daily life. But keep in mind it doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply asking yourself, “what am I experiencing right now?” is a quick and easy way to practice mindfulness and bring yourself back to the now.
So that’s mindfulness in a nutshell! Hopefully, you see that it’s not anything complicated or intimidating. It’s actually very simple and straightforward and you can customize your own mindfulness practice to fit your needs. I encourage you to start experimenting with mindfulness because the benefits of this practice are so worthwhile. And another bonus: it’s completely free!
If you’re interested in exploring mindfulness and creating a practice of your own, but aren’t sure where to start, I’d love to help! Click here to schedule a free 30 min Strategy Session to discuss how mindfulness could help you reach your wellness goals.