Mental Health & the Power of Mindfulness
Each one of us has experienced moments of sadness, hopelessness, or general stress and anxiety at some point in our lives. These feelings are either triggered by a specific difficult or traumatic event or come in waves depending on the situations and environments we find ourselves in. For some people, bouts of sadness are fleeting and they can regain their stable moods relatively quickly. For others, mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are long-term, chronic, and often times crippling; they’re uphill battles to be faced every day. To combat these mental health conditions, there is an answer that we commonly turn to – talking to someone; though sometimes seeking out a confidant or a therapist is easier said than done.
- What if there’s another way, a supplement to therapy that works by using the power of our own minds?
- What if we can do some self-reflecting and find clarity and healing within ourselves?
Mindfulness & Meditation: One in the Same
“Meditation” sounds like an ancient word to some. An image of Buddha might pop into your head. “Mindfulness” sounds like our new age take on it, but the words are often used interchangeably. It can be complex and confusing, so we feel an explanation is necessary. Mindfulness is a form of meditation. It involves focusing on the present moment, allowing your breath to improve awareness, and being in that moment. In simpler terms, it’s shutting out the BS, taking control, taking thoughtful breaths, and acknowledging what you’re feeling.
The benefits of mindfulness have been studied extensively and the list goes on and on. Research has found that it reduces daily stress and anxiety significantly, boosts working memory and focus, helps people sleep better, leads to less emotional reactivity, and improves relationship satisfaction. Physical benefits include lowering blood pressure, lowering heart rate, and increasing immune function to name a few. Other studies even found it can facilitate recovery from potentially terminal illnesses.
Engaging in mindfulness can seem like a daunting task – the technology-obsessed world in which we live has made it hard for us to mentally unwind and shut down. I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m always on my phone either talking to friends or scrolling through social media, like lots of people my age. If I’m not on my phone there’s a good chance I’m doing ten other things at once – basically, my mind is always stimulated in one way or another.
I’ll be candid and say that at first, I was skeptical and the idea of meditating and practicing mindfulness sounded kind of useless. I bypassed the thought. I needed a therapist to say something profound or a pill to fix the way I’m feeling. How could sitting in silence with myself possibly help?
How I Discovered Mindfulness
At the height of my depression and anxiety, I was willing to try anything to feel better. I started doing hot yoga and found the combination of the calming atmosphere, movement & sweat, and release of endorphins helped me keep it together. Being a dancer, I was always so focused on getting the precise movements correct that I neglected to notice my breathing patterns throughout, which the instructors repeatedly reminded us was a key part of yoga. For a while, I was never fully present and wondered why I still felt my mind racing at the end of class. Eventually, the light bulb went on. I realized there was something to this conscious focus on breathing after all and I needed to hone in on my mindfulness instead of worrying about getting all the moves right.
Around the time of this newfound appreciation for mindfulness during yoga, I had heard an ad for an app called Headspace. It’s basically a platform that teaches you how to meditate, like a guide for beginners. They describe the goals of the techniques they teach as “cultivating awareness and compassion so that we might better understand the mind, as well as our relationship with the world around us.” It had glowing reviews and I was into the concept so I decided to give it a try.
A Case in Point
I was fully committed – I figured ten minutes out of my day was no sacrifice. I found a quiet spot, closed my eyes in a comfortable position, and started to listen. Never before had I heard a more soothing voice – this man with a British accent who taught the meditations truly put me in a dream-like state. Sounds weird, but listen and you’ll believe me. I learned that meditating didn’t have to be done in silence like I had previously assumed – embracing the background noise from wherever you are can be part of the experience. A session usually included brief moments of acknowledging exactly how I was feeling and thinking about it, followed by a few minutes of allowing my mind to wander and not focusing on anything at all. Breathing was done thoughtfully and lots of counting was always involved. Endearing and inspirational reminders of how life has a way of righting itself and that we are not defined by our problems were often a part of the meditation. I also learned about the “blue sky” theory – an idea that has stuck with me ever since – which I’ll explain shortly.
I meditated every day for about a week to get the full effect. Overall, my mind felt clearer. I noticed I could approach normally stressful scenarios with less anxiety and I wasn’t as quick to react with negative emotions to certain situations as I had typically done before. My general demeanor was calmer and I felt like I could focus better throughout the day. I found myself looking forward to my ten minutes of alone time every day and wanting to share my discovery of mindfulness with friends who complained they were feeling anxious or stressed out. It felt like a safe space where I was dedicating time and effort to taking care of my mental health.
Interested? Some Tips to Make Mindfulness Work for You
- Begin with an open mind.
Don’t write it off until you try it. Give it a chance before deciding if it will work or not. You may find that it’s an incredibly useful tool, or maybe it just isn’t for you.
- Do it in the morning.
Set the tone for your day by practicing your ten minutes of mindfulness each morning. It’s a ritual that allows for mental clarity and focus throughout the day and will always start you off on the right foot.
- Find a comfortable place.
One that is relatively quiet with no interruptions. Continue to meditate in this same space and once you grasp the power of mindfulness, move to other places where you can incorporate the background noises instead of letting them distract you.
- Adopt the “blue sky” theory.
A simple yet powerful concept. Headspace explains this as a metaphor for the mind, “a blank canvas in which thoughts, feelings, and experiences appear. The mind appears like a blue sky when it’s calm; bright, blue, and serene. Occasionally dark storm clouds can appear and it can seem like a hurricane is on the way. It gets hard to think of anything else, and we obsess over the dark storm clouds but forget that the blue sky is still there underneath it – just temporarily masked. It’s easy to forget that what we’re looking for is already here.” Apply it to life when a difficult situation arises.
We can get so caught up in the craziness of life that we don’t realize how effective ten minutes of meditation and mindfulness per day can really be. Practicing mindfulness hasn’t cured my depression and anxiety, but it’s a tool I’ve added to my arsenal of coping techniques along with talk therapy, medication, and exercise to feel good. I don’t do it every day, but I do it when I need to. It’s a method that’s good to master as reassurance that we can depend on ourselves to care for our own mental health.
Bushak, L. (2017). What’s The Difference Between Mindfulness And Meditation?. Medical Daily. Retrieved 7 May 2017, from http://www.medicaldaily.com/mindfulness-meditation-differences-377346
What are the benefits of mindfulness?. (2017). http://www.apa.org. Retrieved 7 May 2017, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx
Ackerman, C. (2017). The 23 Amazing Health Benefits of Mindfulness for Body and Brain (+ PDFs). Positivepsychologyprogram.com. Retrieved 7 May 2017, from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/benefits-of-mindfulness/
Underlying Calm. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmqI1u72QLU