Mindfulness; the simple and complex skill sweeping the mental health world.
All of this lives in my head, this acquired knowledge on mindfulness. I am not a neuroscientist, I am not a mindfulness expert. However, I find myself wanting to share with all those around me how incredibly complex mindfulness is. This is quickly followed by back stepping and letting them know how quite simple the actual practice of mindfulness can be. Read on to learn way more on mindfulness then you ever wanted to know.
To give an overview, mindfulness is any act that can bring us into a present-centered focus. And by doing so, we are not in the past (depression) or future (anxiety). To contrast, mindlessness is when we are on autopilot, not engaging in the world as its actually happening, we are lost somewhere in our minds. Have you ever driven somewhere and after getting out of the car realized you do not remember the drive? That's an example of mindlessness. Just enough of your brain was present to attend to other drivers and stop signs, but really you were somewhere else. Mindlessness is not all bad, it can help us breeze through routines, for example, but it can also lead to missing out on life.
Research on mindfulness has found that 8 minutes of non-consecutive and intentional mindfulness is all it takes to begin restructuring the brain's pathways. A very, general neuroscience overview of how the brain has evolved is a great way to understand why mindfulness can be so helpful. Imagine the brain in three structures, the brain stem (instinct), midbrain (emotions/memories) and executive center (planning, problem-solving) and picture them evolving in order, starting with the brain stem.
The brain stem is often regarded as the lizard brain. Its the part of the brain the houses instincts; eat to live, reproduce, find warmth.... Reptiles operate in this way, they instinctively know how to keep themselves alive and find food. For people, this part of the brain helps run things that keep us alive, like breathing for instance, and some deep-seated unconscious fears that keep us safe, (snakes, heights, that kind of thing).
The midbrain roughly houses our emotions and memories. This is where mammals have evolved to; this part of the brain provides the ability to form emotional bonds. Nurturing young, concern for the next generation.... something that reptiles tend to not concern themselves with. Mammals have the ability to remember past behaviors and consequences and make adjustments accordingly. For example, for a cat, if I meow enough they will eventually feed me, if I scratch them they will stop trying to pet me. For humans, this part of our brain has a positive role in letting us bond with others and recall happy moments.
This is also where not so happy emotions can become tangled with memories and turn into triggers for negative emotional states and maladaptive behaviors.
Then we have the executive center, a part of the brain that is fully developed in us humankind. This allows us to budget the checkbook, plan a trip or follow a recipe. This is the part of the brain, that when we engage we are generally free from anxiety and depression because we are focused on a task and thinking logically. This is the part of the brain that we are using when we are mindful.
The more we are mindful, the more we pull ourselves from the depths of the midbrain where anxiety lives. And if we make a habit of practicing, small pathways in our brain actually begin to change, making being mindful more of a default, rather than being mindless. Studies have actually shown the dedicated practice of mindfulness to be just as effective as anti-depressants.
One of the simplest mindful activities that you can do is taste your food. Smell it, taste it, pay attention to it while you are eating it rather than watching tv or looking at your phone. This of course goes to enjoying a hot or cold beverage.
Anytime water is involved is an easy way to be mindful. Just simply noticing the temperature of the water, the smell of soap, the look of bubbles is being mindful.
Engaging in a conversation in which you listen to understand, wait for your turn to speak and stay fully present completely counts as mindfulness.
An exercise that I do with my kid every night is to ask her a series of questions to get her into a mindful state. I ask her if it is light or dark in the room, does she taste toothpaste in her mouth, are her pajamas soft or itchy, does she smell anything in the room, can she hear anything. I am having her tune into her 5 senses.
The 'color your breath
technique is something I developed for my clients that is technically a mindfulness activity. This is an exercise you can do when you start to feel anxiety go up. Breathing techniques are always going to be helpful because they directly counteract the fast heart rate and breathing that comes with anxiety. By "coloring" your breath it makes it easier to stay tuned into the breathing and not drift back into anxious thoughts. To do this you would take a deep breath in and imagine the air as a certain color as it enters your lungs and swirls around, and then imagine it as a different color as you exhale. It's a simple exercise that can really help in a moment of distress.
If you made it through this long description of the complexity and simplicity of mindfulness and feel you stay focused for the entire time (4 minutes?)... Congratulations! You have accomplished 4 of your 8 mindfulness minutes for the day!