Mindfulness: the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.
Research suggests that higher levels of mindfulness are related to lower levels of both mood disturbances and stress, including depression and anxiety. People who are more mindful are less neurotic, and report greater life satisfaction and higher levels of positive emotions, self-esteem, and optimism.
Despite the many benefits, practicing mindfulness can be extremely challenging and it becomes increasingly difficult as you take on more responsibilities and roles in your life. If you aren’t analyzing what happened in a conversation with your boss or spouse yesterday, you’re thinking about what you have to buy at the store tonight, or that birthday card you need to send to your aunt. It may seem like your brain is always on – assessing, evaluating, plotting, and planning various situations, events, and people in your life. I bet you wonder what you would even think about if you weren’t focused on something that happened in the past or something that is supposed to occur in the future.
Being present not only involves awareness about what is happening in your external world at this very moment, but it also requires awareness of what is going on inside you. Existing in a present state of mind means turning off all the noise and outside distractions, and instead tuning inward. Focusing on your thoughts, emotions, and sensory perceptions can calm your mind and make you feel more grounded.
In fact, research shows that mindfulness can fundamentally change the way you think and process information. Neuroscientific studies have found differences in areas of the brain associated with decision-making, attention and awareness in people who regularly practice mindfulness meditation. People who participate in mindfulness training have also shown increased activation in the area of the brain associated with positive emotions, which is generally less active in people with depression.
Integrating just a few mindfulness techniques into your day can help with your overall health and well-being. Below are simple exercises to help shift your focus to the present moment and encourage you to exist in the now.
Quick Mindfulness Exercises:
- Deep Breathing Exercise: A good way to begin practicing mindfulness is by paying attention to your breath. Take a moment right now and start listening to your inhales and exhales. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. After exhaling through the mouth, take a slow deep breath in through your nose for 4 or 5 counts and hold it for 4 or 5 counts.
Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 5. As all the air is released with relaxation, gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely empty the remaining air from the lungs. Repeat the cycle four more times for a total of 5 deep breathes.
Notice if your mind starts to wander during this exercise. Take note of any thought as it pops into your head, but don’t grab onto it. Let it pass as if you are the sky and your thoughts are clouds – let them drift by. Return to watching your breath.
- Body Scan Exercise: Another way to cultivate peace of mind is to tune into your physical body. Take a comfortable seat and close your eyes. Start noticing your breath coming in and out of your body, feeling it move through your nose or mouth, and into your lungs. Take a few moments to focus on your breath.
Now bring your focus to your toes. Continue your deep, slow breath while wiggling your toes and bringing your attention to this part of your body. Next move your focus to the soles of your feet, then to your ankles, and then your calves. How do they feel? Do you notice any pain or specific sensation?
Continue breathing deeply. Bring attention to your knees and gently rock them side-to-side. Bring attention to your thighs, working to tense both the inner and outer muscles and then relax them. Do this a few times – tense and relax.
Now bring attention to your buttocks, squeeze them together and relax. Repeat two more times. Continue to breath and scan your body. Move on to your low back – notice any pain or tightness there. Breathe into any discomfort and then relax.
Next focus on your stomach. Feel your breath move in and out. Take note of any pain or other sensations in your stomach. Then work your way up to your shoulders. Scrunch your shoulders up to your ears, then relax them down your back. Do this a few times – tense and release.
Now bring attention to your neck. Roll your head gently in each direction and notice any pain or tightness in the muscles of your neck. Do your best to breathe into the tightness and relax.
Now focus on your face. Feel any tension in your face muscles. Unclench your jaw, wiggle your mouth side to side, loosen and relax the face as you continue breathing. Bring attention to your head and your hair. Is it moving? Feel the hair follicles on your head. Keep breathing and relaxing.
Release all your body’s tension as you take a few more long deep inhales and exhales. Feel your feet connected to the earth. Notice any other points of connection to the ground, and use this to balance and root yourself throughout the rest of your day.
- Mindful Observation Exercise: Start this exercise by looking around you in this moment. What do you see? What colors stand out to you? Is there anyone in the room? What catches your eye?
Then choose one object within your immediate environment and focus on it. This can be anything – a chair, another person, a plant, an insect, the sky or clouds. Sit for two to three minutes and don’t do anything except notice the object or person. Really notice it and look at it as if you are exploring it for the first time. Allow yourself to take note of how you may be feeling while looking at this item. Just sit, observe, and be.
- Listening Exercise: Another way to practice mindfulness is to increase your awareness of the sounds around you. Stop what you are doing in any given moment and listen to what you hear. How do the sounds make you feel? Where are they coming from?
Next, put on headphones and turn on a song of your choice. It can be your favorite song, or something you’ve never heard before. Close your eyes as you listen to the song. Don’t think about the artist or any memories you may have with that song/artist/genre. Instead focus on each musical note, sound, instrument. Notice the silence too. Notice the pauses or spaces – the breaks. Allow yourself to get lost in the music, only thinking about what you hear in the moment and not what is coming next. You will know you’re truly present in listening when you aren’t anticipating the end of the song, rather wishing the song would never end.