Using mindfulness techniques cannot only promote better mental and emotional wellness, but it can also help you feel better physically as well as maintain healthier, more positive relationships. Mindfulness is a habit of mind that means, simply, that you are paying attention on purpose to what is happening in the present, and you are doing so non-judgmentally.
Being mindful means, you are focused on what is happening right now, you are able to redirect your mind to the present when it wanders away from what is happening right now, and you do so intentionally and purposefully.
Mindfulness is not about religious or spiritual beliefs, nor is it a complex set of practices you must adhere to strictly. Instead, mindfully focusing is simple, and once you have mastered the technique that works best for you, you can apply it to nearly all aspects of your life.
Being mindful focuses you on whatever is happening in your life at that moment. In today’s world of multi-tasking, instant gratification, and easily-accessed distractions, it can be hard to stay in the moment for very long. Mindfulness teaches you to notice when your mind wanders, and to return your thoughts to the present willfully.
When you first start to practice this, you may notice that your mind wanders. That is completely normal. The “practice” part comes when you purposefully bring your attention back. Don’t worry or judge yourself for the wander, just refocus and be present. That is being mindful.
As mindfulness techniques have become more understood and popular, researchers, educators, and wellness experts have come to realize the power that these practices can have on many aspects of your life.
Mindfulness is now being used to improve mental health, increase emotional awareness and wellness, promote better physical health, and to improve interpersonal relationships. Not only can being mindful help you to feel more focused and attentive, but it can actually change the way your brain processes, how you handle emotions, how your body responds to stress, and so much more.
Improving your overall mental wellness should be a goal for everyone, regardless of your current mental health status. Recently, the National Institute of Mental Health or NIMH has begun investigating the impact of mindfulness on many different mental health conditions, with some surprising results (Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies, Shian-Ling Keng, et al.).
Because mindfulness is focused on being fully aware in the present, it teaches you greater control over your thoughts, which can be a positive thing for many people who suffer from mental health issues.
By practicing mindfulness, you are actually teaching your mind to pay more attention to what is currently happening in your life and less attention to your “mental monologue,” which can often include a running list of past regrets, mistakes, hurt feelings, and other distractions that keep you from living your life. Attention is something you can learn and become better at over time.
Reduce Anxiety and Depression
Those with anxiety and depression seem to notice the greatest benefit from practicing mindfulness techniques. Some researchers are even noting that certain types of mindfulness activities can be as effective as talk therapy for treating some patients with these types of disorders. The National Institute of Health’s database of published medical research now includes over 500 scientific studies on the use of meditation or mindfulness and the brain.
As an intervention for mental health issues like anxiety and depression, mindfulness is a natural fit. Depressive thoughts are generally focused on the past, while anxious thoughts are usually fixated on the future. By training your brain to focus solely on the present, you are able to attend to what is happening here and now.
Your ability to control your attention means those thoughts have no place in your mind. Researchers Goyal and colleagues have been able to confirm the benefits of meditation and other mindfulness activities on stress-related symptoms (Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-ban: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis)
Change Your Brain
Brain scans of those who practice mindfulness techniques indicate more activity in the areas controlling attention regulation, and researchers also now new neural pathways being created in the brains of more mindful individuals.
Mindfulness, therefore, can change the way your brain operates, which can help with many forms of mental illness as well as improve your overall mental health, as Keshavan et al. Reveal in “Cognitive Training in Mental Disorders: Update and Future Directions.”
In addition to benefiting those diagnosed with mental health disorders, mindfulness can help us all to achieve a more focused attention that can have other, beneficial effects on the emotional, physical and social aspects of our lives, too.
Certainly, your emotional well-being is tied to your mental wellness, as well. But, changing your cognitive processes does not always change the emotions tied to those thoughts, but that is where mindfulness can also be a support.
Mindfulness makes you aware more fully of what is happening in the present, both externally and internally. Being mindful means paying purposeful attention and being intentional in your actions and thoughts. Because mindfulness is all about living in the present, it can help you move past some of the most negative emotions we often experience that are tied to the past.
When you focus on the present, and what is happening right now, you avoid getting trapped in the emotions you have about the past and the future. When you live in the present, you are better able to experience the joy of life, learn from your experiences, and learn how to deal more effectively with the psychological wounds you carry with you.
When you allow your emotions to rest squarely in the unknown future or the regret-filled past, you neglect the possibilities of your present situation. Living outside of your present means you are likely to end up with feelings of sadness, emptiness, restlessness, guilt, or regret, due to your diminished ability to appreciate and acknowledge your present reality.
Regaining control of your emotions means you can realize your full potential in life, and this is possible through mindfulness practices. By accepting and seizing each moment in your life, you become more fully aware of the perceptions, sensations, beliefs, and feelings that are guiding your life.
Mindfulness is not about ignoring all the thoughts that come into your head, but instead, it means you are able to acknowledge it, accept it for what it is, and continue to experience the world in spite of them.
Mindfulness shifts the center of your attention from your thoughts about something to the thing itself. You still have those thoughts, but you realize that you no longer have to respond or react to every thought that comes into your mind. Taking a nonjudgmental stance regarding these thoughts allows you to experience more of life without allowing your feelings about things to control your every action.
Because the health of your body is tied directly to the health of your mind, and vice versa, changing the way you think can actually change how you feel. Because mindfulness impacts your emotional and mental health, your body enjoys many physical benefits from these types of practices. Researchers have been studying the impact of mindfulness and meditation on stress, sleep, heart rate, blood pressure, inflammation, and much more.
When you become more mindful, you at more attuned to your thoughts and emotions but you also become more aware of your physical body, picking up on the subtle hints your body gives that it is healthy or perhaps in need of attention.
Being more mindful can alert you more to small problems before they become large ones, and mindfulness techniques can teach you to pay closer attention to your body’s needs. A paper published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience confirms the mind-body connection, and how mindfulness can help you live healthier (Mindfulness Starts with the Body, Kerr, et al.).
Lower Stress And Better Sleep
In addition, living more fully in the present has been shown to reduce stress and improve sleep, two important components to your physical well-being. Stress causes many problems or contributes to the worsening of others. When you are mindful and living in the present, you are able to focus on what is important now, which means less worry about tomorrow and yesterday.
Learning to practice mindfulness can also help you sleep better at night. Mindfulness lowers anxiety, which is one of the most significant reasons people lay awake at night. Those who are more mindful throughout their day also have lower stress levels, which translates into getting to sleep faster, as well, according to researchers at the University of Utah (Better Living Through Mindfulness). So, if you want to sleep easier, begin being more mindful both during the day and at bedtime.
A Healthier Heart
Being more mindful can also lower your blood pressure and regulate your stress hormones, both of which, over time, can improve your heart health. High blood pressure and high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, can lead to oxidative stress and the buildup of plaque in the arteries that feed your heart. Reducing these, along with other heart-healthy lifestyle and diet choices, can improve your heart’s health and longevity (Stress Reduction in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease, Schneider, et al.)
Reduction In Pain
Those who practice mindfulness meditation techniques have been known to experience a reduction in pain as well as have fewer migraine headaches, according to some researchers. Meditation can reduce emotional stress, which is a cause of migraines, and these techniques make it possible for you to exercise control over the extent to which you experience sensations like pain.
Decreased Levels Of Inflammation And Disease
Your mind also exhibits some control over your immune system’s inflammatory response mechanism and becoming more mindful can actually help train your brain to slow or stop inflammation as a response to certain conditions. Trained attention and focus could be the ticket, with the right practices combined with other therapies can reduce chronic inflammation and the inflammatory response to many chronic diseases and conditions (Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation, Davidson, et al.).
Improve Your Body Image And Habits Toward Eating
More frequently, mindfulness training is being incorporated into weight loss plans and programs. This type of cognitive training can help you control impulses, increase your ability to follow an eating plan, and help you deal with the negative emotions you may have about food and eating. Mindfulness plays an important role in the regulatory areas of the brain, making it an effective addition to weight loss efforts.
Those who are prone to emotional eating, which often leads to unwanted weight gain, have seen great success with mindfulness techniques. Being mindful while preparing and eating food lowers emotional eating behaviors, which means it could be an effective therapy for those with eating disorders as well as anyone looking to maintain weight loss.
Those who use mindfulness tools can also improve their body image, which plays a critical role in weight loss and your emotions about food and eating. Being mindful can help you to focus on your present reality non-judgmentally, which can foster a healthier self-image and allow you to develop a healthier relationship with your body as well as food.
Lower Your Dementia Risk
Practicing mindfulness techniques can also support your cognitive pathways to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. While dementia is controlled by many factors, including lifestyle and genetic factors, practicing mindfulness could be helpful in training the brain’s neural pathways to be more elastic, which could possibly lower the chance of developing dementia.
Researchers are just beginning to study this hypothesis, so we will know more in the coming few years (Mindfulness Training for People With Dementia and Their Caregivers, Berk, et al.).
While most people are familiar with the concepts of mental, emotional, and physical wellness, social wellness may be a new idea to many. Just as your emotional and mental health impact your physical self, and vice versa, your social relationships are also important for your overall health and well-being. Having strong social connections can actually improve your mortality risk, boost your immune system, and lower your levels of cortisol in the brain, all of which influence your overall wellness.
As social creatures, our brains are actually wired to seek connection with other humans. Our families, friendships, and partnerships are deeply important to our happiness and health and learning to cultivate these is an essential life skill. Here are some ways you can maintain social wellness using mindfulness and other attention techniques.
Know Yourself Better
When you are more mindful, you have a better understanding of yourself, what makes you tick, what triggers you into negative emotions, and what you value in life. Knowing all of these things can help you engage in more positive relationships that better match your values and interests, which can help you to grow and become more fulfilled. Knowing yourself well lets you share the most authentic version of you with others, which will ultimately allow you to have closer relationships, as well.
Be Present In Your Relationships
To build healthy, long-lasting relationships, you must be emotionally available to your friends. That is very hard to do when you are not fully present in your interactions with them. Being mindful when you are spending time with others means you are more fully present, you can be more vulnerable with them as you share essential parts of yourself, and you can stop second-guessing others’ motives and intentions.
Friendship is a two-way street, and the way you encourage others to be open and honest with you is to be that way with them. And when you need friends who are there to help you, you must also be there for them when they are in need. Friendship is about being there when the other person needs you, and when you are mindful during your time with your friends, they will notice this focus and attention, making them more likely to want to be there for you.
Your Emotions Are Not Their Emotions
Being mindful means listening and paying attention non-judgmentally, but it does not mean having to identify with and compare yourself to every emotion the other person shares. Mindfulness teaches you to notice when your attention is wandering, and when it starts to wander to your own emotions and issues, you know it is time to re-engage with the other person.
This can help you remain empathetic but not taking responsibility for the other person’s feelings. Authentic interactions with real friends should not leave you exhausted or miserable, and if you are practicing mindfulness, it is easier to maintain the healthy boundaries necessary for any successful relationship.
Deal With Conflict Better
Being mindful can help you understand why conflict arises, how to best manage disagreements with others, and how to better approach these types of situations in the future. Differences are inevitable, and there is not anything inherently wrong with conflict. Being mindful helps you engage more effectively with conflict resolution, keeps you alert to the signals that someone else is not handling your disagreement well, and lets you know when it’s okay to agree to disagree. Mindful practices’ focus on no judgments means you can be more patient and understanding with others who are not yet committed to this way of thinking and interacting.
There are two people involved in every relationship. Taking responsibility for your part in interactions and disagreements means you accept your role in the present situation. Being mindful can help you better observe and be present in the situation without judgment as well as provide you with the attention the other person deserves to come to a mutually beneficial outcome.
Being mindful in your relationships can lead to more healthy, worthwhile interactions and a stronger bond between you and your loved one. Being present in your interactions shows the other person you are engaged and care about their needs, and over time, this will bring you closer together.
How To Be More Mindful
There are many simple techniques you can incorporate into your daily routine to help you learn to be more mindful and pay attention with more intention. The following are some hints and tips for learning to be more mindful in your daily life.
#1. Be mindful in your daily routines. When you are engaging in something you normally do on autopilot, bring awareness to your activities. Brush your teeth while focusing on each specific part of the process, really smell and taste the foods you are using to prepare dinner. Focusing during these times, on things that are already second nature to you, can engage more parts of your mind on the intentional aspects of mindfulness.
#2. Be mindful while you wait. Whether it is on hold, in line, or in traffic, we spend a lot of our lives waiting. Instead of focusing on the inefficiency of this time, or getting more frustrated the longer you wait, try using this time to be more mindful.
While you are waiting, engage in deep breathing exercises, being cognizant of how your breath fills your body, and how breathing helps you relax. Mindfully breathing is an excellent meditation technique and practicing this during times when you are otherwise doing little is an excellent way to practice.
#3. Start your day with mindfulness. As soon as you wake up in the morning, start your day with mindful practice. This helps your body and mind set the tone for the day, and it gets you ready to tackle what lies ahead. Engage in a short mindfulness meditation session to get your mind focused and start your day with the right habits.
#4. Practice breathing. Focusing on your breath is a great way to practice being mindful. Start by taking a slow, deep breath in through your nose while counting slowly to four. Hold this for one second, then slowing exhale your breath to the count of five. Repeat this three times in a row. This technique works as a great “reset” button when you are having trouble staying present in your daily life, as well.
#5. Go for a walk. As you stroll through your neighborhood, office building, or wherever you may be, notice everything your senses are detecting. What sights, smells, and sounds are entering your brain? What is your breath doing? How does your body feel? Be present the entire time you are walking, focusing on the moment and not on the worries or thoughts that may be entering as you walk.
#6. It is okay for your mind to wander. Your brain is naturally curious and seeks connections to things you have already learned, so it is very natural for your mind to wander while you are doing other things. The benefit of mindfulness is that you first are able to recognize when your mind is wandering or when your brain is distracted. The second benefit is you are training your mind to return to the present, to bring it back from the wandering, which is a learned skill.
#7. Practice in short increments. You cannot possibly stay mindful and fully focused on the present at all times all day long. Instead, focus on shorter periods of mindfulness several times per day, versus, say, a weekend dedicated to mindful work. Start small and build up, by shooting for 20-minute sessions at least four times a day is a good target to work toward as you practice your mindfulness techniques.
#8. Be mindful while eating. Meals are a perfect time to practice being mindful, as they present sensory input for multiple senses, and you can only eat for a finite amount of time. Focus on enjoying the eating experience, from the textures to the tastes and subtle nuances in each bite. Focus on how your body responds to eating this meal, when you start to feel full, and how this food makes you feel physically.
#9. Cue yourself to be mindful. Pick a stimulus you regularly encounter, such as when you walk through a specific doorway, when you hear a certain noise, or when it is time for a given activity. That is your cue to practice being mindful.
#10. Find ways mindfulness is supported in your community. Your local area likely has resources related to yoga, meditation, and mindfulness programs focused on stress reduction or weight loss. Find out what is available in your area, including community centers, bookstores, and healthcare centers.
The Power Of Mindful Practice
Mindfulness techniques have been a part of eastern practices related to meditation and yoga for centuries, and without the past two decades, these practices have become more popular as they seep into mainstream culture. Now that medical science is understanding and embracing the power of practices like mindfulness, we are starting to truly understand the benefits of this positive mental state of mind.
Living each day with a focus on the present, rather than the past or the future, allows you to respond to opportunities and experiences more fully as well as learn from the rich experiences life has to offer.
Practicing mindfulness provides you with the mental and cognitive space to gain some peace and quiet in a chaotic world, which can be healing and helpful. Mindfulness is being studied more and more by neuroscience and psychology, as we understand the power these types of behaviors can have on the brain, our emotions, and our bodies.
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