Mindfulness has become quite the buzzword in recent years, perhaps even a bit overused and watered down. But I can assure you mindfulness is something worth learning about.
At the basic level, mindfulness is an easy concept. It’s about developing awareness of yourself in the present moment without judgement.
Now, if you’re like me and “being in the present moment” doesn’t come naturally to you, that phrase may be something you’ve written off as being useless and for people who naturally have more serotonin than you do. But, what it means is not obsessing over the past or worrying about the future, in psychological terms we call these obsessive thinking patterns ruminating.
Ruminating is one of the number one factors associated with anxiety and depression, the more you ruminate the worse your mental health will get. This was really hard for me to wrap my head around, I have always been someone who obsesses over the future and it never occurred to me that it was driving a lot of my anxiety.
This brings me into the next part of the definition of mindfulness, developing awareness. You need to know what is going on in your own head to be able to address it. For many years my awareness was incredibly low, I buried myself in work and thought that ignoring feelings would make them go away. Turns out, I was wrong again, in psychological terms we call that nasty habit of ignoring a feeling repression. The fun saying my professors have taught me about repression is that repression=depression.
The third part of mindfulness, “without judgement” is key. It won’t help to be aware of your present thoughts if you just end up hating yourself because you feel like your thoughts and feelings are wrong somehow. You need to develop a sense of self-acceptance, being too critical is unhelpful and can lead to feelings or worthlessness that drive depression.
So, mindfulness isn’t just a trend, the main components of mindfulness target factors that are huge drivers of anxiety and depression. And in fact there’s a mountain of research to backup mindfulness’s benefits, so much so that therapists have even developed a method of talk therapy that is focused on mindfulness.
Beyond that, aspects of mindfulness can be seen across the course of history in nearly every major religion. The Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish diasporas all feature meditative aspects that fall under the umbrella of mindfulness.
As I’ve alluded to, my journey with mindfulness hasn’t been straightforward, and it took me years after being introduced to the concept to really understand what it meant and how it could help me. The following are the mindfulness practices that have been the most impactful for me, if you are new to mindfulness I would suggest starting with just one practice that interests you and adding new habits slowly over time. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t quite get it at first or see benefits right off the bat, just keep an open mind and be patient with yourself. I hope that these tips can be as helpful to you as they have been to me.
If you tend to repress feelings or struggle to be aware of your emotions this practice will be especially impactful for you. Making it a habit to write down your mood at least once a day forces you take stock of how you’re doing when you might otherwise have ignored your feelings. You’ll also be able to establish mood patterns and notice how and when your moods fluctuate. For me, I’ve noticed that if I’m in a spacey mood several days in a row I’m likely to slide into a depressive episode. When I notice myself getting spaced out I can now take proactive steps to decrease the severity of the depressive episode or sometimes avoid it entirely. If you’re looking for an app to start tracking with I’d recommend Daylio, it’s what I use and it really shines because it is customizable and creates charts and graphs of your mood data.
If you are ever overwhelmed by life, try writing down everything going on inside your head. It is a surprisingly helpful way to calm down and process the information. Journaling can feel overwhelming to start because there are about as many methods to journaling as there are people who do it. My journaling practice consists mostly of prompts from self help books and writing stream of consciousness when I’m getting overwhelmed or emotional. If you don’t know where to start, I’d recommend setting a goal to write stream of consciousness 2-3 times a week and explore from there. When I first tried journaling it really surprised me how much writing things down helped me put problems in perspective so that I could then move forward and tackle the issues head on. If you’re looking for journaling resources Pinterest is my go to.
Yes, another buzz word and super trendy practice. But once again, there’s a reason yoga has been become increasingly popular worldwide. Most items on this list focus on developing emotional and mental awareness, but yoga also helps you develop physical awareness. These are all the benefits I’ve gotten from yoga: improved body image, heightened body awareness, decreased anxiety, basic meditation skills, and I’ve learned breathing exercises. Many people are intimidated by the idea of going to yoga classes or can’t afford it, however a huge number of yogis including myself practice primarily at home and are self taught. There is a wealth of free online resources for learning yoga and my personal favorites are the Down Dog Yoga app and the Fightmaster Yoga channel on Youtube, both have massive variety of practices in regard to types of poses, length, and difficulty. There is also a variety of resources for specialized groups such as plus-sized students and those coping with all types of medical conditions.
Read Self Help Books
The self help genre gets a bit of a bad rep in pop culture for being cheesy and is often portrayed as being only for the desperate. This bad rep kept me away from self help books until quite recently, what pushed me to try it was working with the fourth therapist in a row who I struggled to connect with. (There’s a ton of reasons for this but that’s a separate post, go to therapy if you are struggling with mental health issues!) However, I still wanted to work on improving my mental health but I didn’t want to pour all the time and energy into something that wasn’t working very well for me. I am so glad I did, the knowledge I’ve found in self-help books has been incredibly helpful and I’ve actually made faster progress just reading on my own than seeing a therapist every two weeks. The key to getting the maximum value out of these books is to do all the journaling prompts and exercises in them, that reflection is where a lot of the value comes from. The first book I read which is still my favorite is Yoga Mind by Suzan Colón, it teaches you one yoga principle for mental wellness a day for thirty days.
Mindful eating is a practice that aims to help you develop a better relationship with food and improve your ability to listen to your body and make food choices you can feel good about. I became interested in mindful eating as a way to stop stress eating and it has completely changed the way I think about food, hunger, and fullness. It has really helped me to curb cravings and feel more satisfied after meals, all just by changing my mindset. Mindful eating is a bit harder to explain that the other items on this list, but in short if you’d like to improve your relationship with food look into it. I’ve been using the Mindful Eating Workbook by Dr. Vinnci Tsui and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more.
In conclusion, mindfulness can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. These practices I’ve shared are just a few ways you can make mindfulness a part of your life but nearly anything can be a mindful practice when it is done with intentional awareness and in alignment with the principles I’ve described.
Are you interested in starting any of the practices on this list? How do you practice mindfulness already in your own life? Let me know in the comments!