Article By: Meghan Steel
The principle of “mindfulness” refers to the conscious action of monitoring one’s thoughts and behaviors. While it may seem to some like yet another trendy catchphrase that will disappear from everyday use within a few years, it’s actually a practice with scientifically demonstrated benefits. It has been utilized by many psychotherapists to treat depression and prevent relapse. While it can also help with stress management and emotional regulation. It even helps reduce the symptoms of a multitude of somatic diseases, from multiple sclerosis (MS) to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
At first, it can seem like a daunting task to integrate mindfulness into everyday life; many people first introduced to the concept hear about it in the context of mindful meditation and may mistakenly feel that they will need to sit in silence for an hour to find any benefit. Fortunately, this is far from the truth. Integrating mindfulness into the activities of daily living can still provide all the benefits described previously without the unnecessary time constraints. This article will explain six ways you can improve your physical and mental health through this simple practice.
1. After Waking Up
Unless you’re one of the lucky few who can get out of bed and just leap to your feet (in which case, you’re either six years old or need to tell me what type of mattress you own), the first thing you do after waking up is to stretch those muscles that have been inactive all night. This time is perfect for checking in with your body and with your mind. All you need at this point is to be purposeful in your stretches. Be aware of the spots where your muscles attach to your bones. Note how your toes and fingers move when you flex and curl them. Roll your chin across your chest and feel the multiple muscles that work together to keep your head up. Consider if any part of your body feels different today than it did yesterday. All of this can be achieved within just the first few minutes of your day and will hopefully prepare you to remain mindful during any challenges ahead.
2. Before Going to Bed
Similar to the check-in that you hopefully performed when you woke up, the time you spend lying in bed before you fall asleep is another perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness. Start by laying on your back, preferably with a pillow under your knees to help relax your back. Bring your attention to the spot between your brows, sometimes called your third eye chakra. Use this moment, too, to focus on your breathing, noting how your diaphragm pulls down to expand your chest. Next, systematically tighten and then release your groups of muscles, beginning at your feet and moving up to your scalp. At the same time, be aware of any new thoughts or emotions that suddenly crop up and make a note of which muscle group you were activating at the time.
This may mean you have been ‘carrying’ that emotion with you in the form of tension within that specific area. For example, I carry a lot of my anxieties in my neck and shoulders. If you find which muscle area is opening the biggest emotional floodgates, this may be an area on which you should focus your morning stretches and your evening relaxation exercises. Finish this activity by activating every muscle in your body all at once. Hold for several seconds before releasing them. Along with the chance to practice mindfulness, this exercise should hopefully have helped you relax and make it easier for you to fall asleep.
3. While Eating
Everyone needs to eat, but the busiest of us tend to do it as a secondary thought. Rather than always eating on the run or while multitasking, set aside at least a little time to focus on your food. Shut off all other distractions; don’t watch TV, don’t finish that project from work, leave the phone on the table or in another room if you must. If you’re with other people, be purposely present with them. Take a moment before you start eating. Observe the colors of your food and appreciate the time and energy that was spent to bring them to you. Note how the food smells and what memories those scents may trigger. When you are ready to eat, take small and varied bites. Focus on the texture of the food and how the flavors may blend together. If you tend to overeat, this technique should even help you cut back on a few calories.
4. On The Move
In the car, walking to class, working at your desk, or at the gym, all provide golden opportunities to practice some mindfulness. The first step is to turn off the music, radio, or podcast. This gives you an opportunity to focus on the natural sounds around you and to give more attention to your immediate actions. If you’re at the gym, shutting off the music means you can focus on how your body moves during an exercise. When you’re driving, you can focus on the changing landscapes and the relationships between the other drivers as they move along the road. Simply limiting the number of distractions is an easy way to integrate mindfulness into your daily activities.
A meditation session does not need to involve even thirty minutes of sitting in complete silence to be effective. If you’re at work or can’t find some quiet time because of the kids, try going into the bathroom for just two minutes so you can find some time to yourself. In this time, you can check in with yourself and make a conscious effort to observe your thoughts. Imagine you were watching an old film reel on which your every thought and feeling may be displayed. Do not judge the thoughts as they appear, make a note of them to help gauge your current emotional state. The goal is not to completely clear your head of any thoughts, but rather to act as the passive observer of your thoughts. This can help you improve your emotional regulation through the practice of allowing thoughts to form without granting them an emotional reaction.
If you do find yourself fixated on a specific idea, try to bring your attention back to the current moment by focusing on your breathing. Remind yourself that you are not your brain, just as you are not your stomach or your liver. Your brain is just another organ whose job is to receive and interpret information. Just as our stomach will digest without our conscious control, so too will your mind continue to process information. You may not have any power over which thoughts or images appear, but you do control how you choose to respond to them. You exist outside of your thoughts. Mindfulness is simply the act of acknowledging this truth and turning our attention to these inner processes.
6. Anytime, Anywhere
If mindfulness is just the act of being completely conscious of the present moment, then there are no limits to the times or places it can be practiced. When you are entirely focused on your conversation partner, you are practicing mindfulness. When you watch the squirrels move through the branches outside your window as if you two were the only creatures in the world, you are practicing mindfulness. No matter what you are doing, you can engage in mindfulness by bringing your full attention to your breath and briefly shutting off all other distractions. If you can master this simple exercise, you are already well on your way to finding the benefits of mindful consciousness.