The skill of mindfulness shifts your perspective on emotions. You’ll learn how to get better at soothing anxiety, how to process sad feelings, and how to quiet negative self-talk. Mindfulness combined with CBT has been shown to work as well as medication at treating depression and anxiety, but without the side effects. And it’s more effective in the long term.
Mindfulness for Anxiety
By the end of this post you’re going to know how to use mindfulness in your life. You’re going to experience mindfulness with two quick activities, and you’re going to learn how mindfulness can help you calm your body and mind.
The skill of mindfulness shifts your perspective on emotions. You’ll learn how to get better at soothing anxiety, you’ll learn to process sad feelings, and you’ll learn to quiet negative self-talk.
Mindfulness combined with CBT has been shown to work as well as medication at treating depression and anxiety, but without the side effects. And it’s more effective in the long term.
Mindfulness actually helps rewire your brain — it helps improve connectivity between neurons in the part of your brain that processes emotions.
How Can Mindfulness Help With Processing Emotions?
In skill #5, we looked at how avoiding or struggling with our emotions tends to make us miserable — or at the very least it keeps us from living the life we dream of. So what is the alternative? Just suffering? No! Today we’ll look at mindful acceptance as a step towards resolving emotions.
“When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love.” Thicht Nhat Han
Have you ever had an experience where you were intensely aware of the moment? Maybe it was a beautiful sunrise or even a frightening experience. And suddenly you started noticing the tiny details of each thing around you.
Perhaps you noticed the way the light was hitting the trees and the feel of the dirt beneath your feet; you heard the sound of the birds or maybe even of your own breath. Everything felt real, crisp, the moment felt magical, you felt alive!
On the other hand, have you ever felt like you were just numb, plowing through the day, trying to just not think about your life — or waiting for it to get better. Maybe you’ve felt that way for weeks and months on end.
We often attribute these feelings of joy or misery with the outside circumstances, thinking “The beautiful sunrise gave me joy and my daily grind gave me misery.” But there is another way to look at that. What if it was the state of awareness that brought joy and the habit of distraction and avoidance that brought misery?
Our minds, hearts and bodies have innate healing abilities. We have a natural drive to heal, resolve problems, feel joy, and grow.
When we stop interfering with that natural drive, when we stop distracting ourselves endlessly and start acknowledging instead of avoiding all of our feelings — the comfortable and the uncomfortable — we give ourselves the freedom to come back to ourselves and find peace and joy.
Our brain has a natural way to “file away” our problems and resolve them in our downtime, but if we never give ourselves quiet time, then it creates a backlog of issues to file away.
Some indications that you might have a problem with distraction are: you have a hard time sleeping (because sleep gives your mind a chance to finally sort through your thoughts), you always need music or your phone, or you sit still with nothing to do and you feel anxious or sad.
We can train our minds to feel joy and vitality by developing our present moment awareness. Instead of needing different experiences to feel happy (like a vacation or winning the lottery), we create joy in the present moment by waking up and living.
“Acceptance, in my opinion, is the key to convert momentary happiness to enduring happiness. It helps you move from feeling happy to actually being happy.” -tiny buddha
What Is Mindfulness?
Very simply, mindfulness is just being aware.
It’s being aware of what we are experiencing in the here and now. For example, are you aware of the chair pressing against your legs right now? Well, now you are mindful of that. Another way to describe it is to be “awake” to the present moment.
We can practice mindfulness and actively work out those mindful “muscles” by focusing our awareness on our bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. If we do this while actively acknowledging and accepting these present thoughts, sensations, and emotions, we can develop more internal power.
Uh-oh! There’s that word again: acceptance. I actually wish there was a better word in English for it because acceptance has the connotation of giving up or saying “I’m just going to accept that my life sucks and it always will” or some crap like that. But that’s not what it means at all (at least when used in a therapeutic sense).
Acceptance as we use it is simply acknowledging what is here in the present and choosing to allow it to be there. That’s it. It is getting grounded in the here and now and noticing what here and now feels like. Another way to describe it is willingness: choosing to be willing to feel. It is starting with where we are and going from there.
In football they start each play where the ball is, not where it could have been or should have been. Willingness is about starting where we are at.
Imagine how a football game would go if before every play, the players spent time arguing about where the ball ought to be or where they want it to be. Or wishing they had done better the previous play or worrying about the 4th quarter or trying not to think about where the ball is because they don’t like it . . . they would not get very far.
Same thing goes with our emotions. Acceptance or willingness doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to move forward; it just means we know where we are starting.
It’s amazing how much of our lives we spend not noticing, being mindless. We regret or long for the past; we worry or daydream about the future — all the while trying to escape The Now. We keep our minds distracted by music, TV, Facebook, work.
We try not to notice the pain that we feel, all the while not realizing that if we just accept that it exists right now, it tends to not hurt so much.
What’s an Example of Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is pretty simple to learn and practice, so let’s try a little experiment.
For this exercise you’re going to need a little bit of food. Some trail mix, a piece of bread or fruit, whatever. Just stop reading and go find a little piece of something to eat.
Eating is one of those things that we often do while multitasking. We watch TV or talk on the phone or just keep working while we down a sandwich. Distracted eating is associated with weight gain, overeating, and decreased enjoyment of food.
Go ahead and get out your little piece of food. But don’t eat it yet. Just take a moment and look at the food, really see it.
Pretend that you’re an alien who has landed on a strange planet and you get to describe this food for the first time ever. What do you see? Notice the texture; the light on it; its shape; whether it is soft, hard, coarse, smooth.
Feel it in your hand. Is it light, heavy, warm, cool?
Notice any thoughts that might come up, like “Why am I doing this?” and just let those thoughts be there, then bring your attention back to the food.
What do you notice in your body? Are you starting to salivate? What does that feel like?
Bring the piece of food up to your nose. Does it have any smell?
Bring it up to your ear. Does it make any sound?
Now bring the piece of food to your mouth. Isn’t it interesting that your hand knows exactly where to go?
Gently place the food in your mouth. Feel it in there, but don’t chew yet. What do you notice about it? Feel it on your tongue: its weight, temperature, size, texture. Explore the sensations of it in your mouth.
When you are ready, intentionally bite into it. Did you automatically pick a side to chew on? Notice when you start to taste the food. Slowly slowly chew the food, and notice when you feel a desire to swallow. What does that drive feel like?
When you swallow, notice what it feels like to swallow. Can you feel the food moving down toward your stomach?
Congratulations! You’ve just had your first taste of mindfulness. You noticed what it felt like to do something that you often do mindlessly.
How Is Mindfulness Different From Meditation?
Let’s talk about the difference between mindfulness and meditation. Meditation is an activity, mindfulness is a state of awareness. Meditation is when you stop what you’re doing and spend a certain amount of time in mindfulness or in a meditation activity. Mindfulness can be done by stopping what we are doing and focusing on it.
But what I love about mindfulness is that it can also be done while in the middle of whatever else we are doing, bringing joy and awareness to our task at hand.
I tend to suck at meditation. I find it very hard to do and difficult to set aside time to do it, but when I do it it’s beneficial. On the other hand, mindfulness is a practice that is much easier for me because I can do it while I am doing whatever else I am doing. And it brings me vitality during the task at hand.
What Are the Characteristics of Mindful Acceptance?
The characteristics of mindful acceptance are:
- Present moment awareness (Keep bringing yourself back to the here and now.)
- Non-judgmental approach (Don’t label your initial thoughts, emotions, or sensations as good or bad.)
- Non-striving (Don’t try to force change or compete with others (change is a different activity). This activity is about being where you’re at while you are there.)
- Beginner’s mind (Be curious — have a new-mind or curious-scientist approach, and ask “What does it feel like to feel this?”)
- Expanding awareness (Ask “What else am I experiencing?” An example of this is when an elderly person who was suffering has died you might feel super sad, but also grateful that they aren’t in pain anymore. Mindfulness explores the subtle emotions in addition to the loud ones.)
Often mindfulness helps us feel a sense of calm or increased joy in the moment, but that is not the goal of mindfulness.
Sometimes mindfulness makes us feel worse (especially when we’ve been chronically avoiding or distracting ourselves).
The goal is not to make you feel better. The goal is to make you better at feeling. To, like a weightlifter, increase your emotional muscles so that heavy things seem light, not because the nature of the weight (or the emotion) has changed, but because our ability to lift it has increased.
These are not relaxation techniques. We can do tons of relaxation techniques later. But that won’t bring us happiness if we are just using them to attempt to escape or avoid our emotions. As you practice mindfulness, focus your intention on what you are feeling instead of what you want to be feeling.
What Are Other Ways to Practice Mindfulness?
When we are feeling distracted or detached from the present moment, we can quickly return to the present by utilizing our senses. Just stop right now for a second and feel your breath coming in and out.
I didn’t tell you to slow your breathing, but when you sit with and notice something, most of the time it relaxes, settles, and soothes.
You’ll notice that many of these activities help us notice and focus on our sensations. Being in touch with our body and our five senses helps us connect to the vitality of the moment. It helps us develop the ability to be better at feeling, basically strengthening our emotional and mental muscles.
Noticing our physical sensations is essential to understanding our emotions, our feelings.
When practicing mindfulness, it’s normal for our minds to wander. When you notice that happening, just gently pull yourself back to the present moment. Often this is easiest by starting with awareness of the breath.
Now that you understand the basics of mindfulness, you can practice this throughout the day or when experiencing a strong emotion.
Take a minute to be mindful. As you scan your body, allow those emotions or sensations to be there, and then check for what else is there. What else is going on? Check in with your body, your mind, and your emotions as if you were a curious scientist, exploring and describing the experience for the first time.
The full course has many more mindfulness activities. Choose at least one of the following activities to practice mindfulness while doing one of your daily activities.
- Check out my grounding skills playlist if you’d like to try a couple.
- 3 Minute Mindful Breathing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEfs5TJZ6Nk&t=34s
- Turn off the radio in the car, and just pay attention to your experience while you drive.
- Try mindful walking https://www.livingwell.org.au/mindfulness-exercises-3/4-walking-mindfulness/
- When taking a shower, pay careful attention to the sensation of showering. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQZYPBpR3Es
- Bring Mindfulness to your chores:
Check out the rest of my course, How to Process Emotions below.