My Love-Hate Relationship With Mindfulness… and why you should really, really consider practicing it
Mindfulness has been a buzzword in the health community of late. I’m hoping that after reading this, you’ll have a basic idea of what it is and why it helps.
Western culture is full of busy-ness – depression and anxiety are more common than they’ve ever been. Typically, I like to simplify depression and anxiety somewhat, down to past and future. Anxiety is the uneasiness and even fear of some future threat – generally, one that isn’t exactly easy to define. We might be really anxious about an upcoming presentation, but have a harder time nailing down where that comes from – perhaps it might come from baggage that we carry around from some intense public shame that we’ve felt in the past, and the risk of putting ourselves out there again heightens us to a degree that feels like it doesn’t even make sense (our bodies remember shame a lot more acutely than our minds do). Anxiety is often designed to warn us and protect us against the threat of more hurt like this.
Depression, often, is oriented in the reverse direction – maybe our past experiences have coloured our world in a way that joy is difficult to experience, and it’s hard to believe that we will experience anything different going forward. Depression tends to affect the innate and beautiful sense of curiosity and wonder that comes with being a human being (think of a young child you know interacting with the world around them).
Please understand that these are simplistic definitions, designed to give a basic idea of where mindfulness comes in. Often, depression and anxiety can keep our thoughts in the future or past, which is exhausting. Constant worry or feeling down can lead us to do a number of things that are very adaptive and reasonable in the moment (such as distracting ourselves from a painful experience), but they are exhausting in the long run. Mindfulness brings us to the present. It gives our brain a short break from the constant worry and just brings us into right…now. Young children (for example) are generally really good at being present in the moment.
Being mindful can help ease stress
Mindful meditation might involve focusing on our breath, the food we’re eating, the physical sensations in our bodies, or the sounds outside. It is inviting ourselves to experience the present moment for what it is – without judgment. I have a lot of tension on my shoulders, for example. I carry it with me everywhere, and I really hate having it around. But when I’m mindful, I’m not focusing on how much I wish it weren’t there. I’m just noticing it and training myself to be OK with it, just for a minute. Or, I’m noticing the sounds of the traffic outside, and I’m not thinking any thoughts at all – just experiencing the present for whatever it is. This is really hard – especially at first, and even more so when we are experiencing physical or emotional discomfort.
If you’d like to know the why behind things, I’d like to tell you about the work of two people I admire (who are just like you and me, and also happen to have a long list of impressive credentials that I won’t outline here) named Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dan Siegel. They’ve spent a lot of time researching and exploring mindfulness, and their work is very impressive.
Benefits of mindfulness
One of the main things mindfulness does is increase left forebrain function. This increased brain activity fosters that beautiful curiosity I was talking about. If we can notice and be curious when we’re stressed, we’ve already won. We start seeing ourselves from an outside perspective, with more grace and compassion (have you ever wished you could see yourself the way you see somebody you care about?). We can learn to calmly respond to things that otherwise would have sent us into a frenzy.
I could talk forever about this, but I’ll just give you a quick list of the amazing benefits you can find in mindfulness:
- Direct help with physical symptoms such as chronic inflammation and pain
- Reduced anxiety, stress, and depression
- Improved immune system function and mood
- Healthier coping – an increased ability to bounce back after one of the hard experiences that are so common in life
Sounds too good to be true, right? It is sort of. It’s not a pill – it takes the effort to be mindful. I hate it, actually. In many ways being regularly mindful is a primary component of my job, and I still suck at it. But, I’m getting slowly better – then worse – then better again. But even a little bit helps – if you can manage even 20 seconds a day, you will notice a difference.
If you want to read more about this, the works of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Dan Siegel are a great place to start. Jon Kabat-Zinn has a website and a variety of videos on YouTube that are really interesting. I’ve provided a few links below to get you started.
If you want to get started with a mindfulness practice of your own, there are quite literally endless free resources online in both video and audio format, but I recommend the Headspace app. It teaches you the basics and gives you easy, situation-specific guided meditations.
If you want more information on how to actually do the thing, here’s a Harvard blog that covers the basics pretty well:
Here’s Jon Kabat-Zinn on making what you already do in the morning into a mindful practice (this way, you don’t even need to learn to do anything new!):
Lastly, if you want to fact check my claims, I have a resource list of academic papers I’d be happy to share with you. Here’s one I really like (you may need access to an academic database to read it):
Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., . . . Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
I hope this has been helpful for you. Sometimes we love what helps, sometimes it’s aggravating; one thing is for sure – mindfulness helps us keep calm, be present, and cope. If I, or anyone else on the team at Alongside You can be helpful in working through this with you, please contact us and give us a call.