Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
By Sarah DeSantis, LCSW
Do you ever question what mindfulness really means and what it really looks like? If so, this confusion is common. Many people have myths about what mindfulness is. Some think it’s a deep state of relaxation, others think it’s a way of controlling your thinking. Before reading on, I encourage you to ask yourself, what does mindfulness mean to me?
Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, defines mindfulness as “A set of psychological skills for enhancing life that involve paying attention with openness, curiosity, and flexibility.”
When I start teaching my clients mindfulness skills, they often have certain expectations of what a mindfulness activity ‘should’ look like. Recently, as I was engaging in a mindfulness activity with a client, she defeatedly concluded, “I failed. I couldn’t stop thinking.” Welp- I’m here to debunk the myth that mindfulness means ‘not experiencing emotions or thinking.’
Oftentimes, when engaging in any sort of mindfulness, the expectation is “I should be able to control my thoughts.” It’s quite the contrary. Mindfulness is about being aware and paying attention to our thoughts and emotions, not trying to get rid of them or control them. The job of our brains is to think. Naturally, our minds tend to wander, for some more often than others. To complete a mindfulness activity with the expectation that we won’t think, or feel, is extremely unrealistic and unattainable.
Instead, the goal of mindfulness is to be aware and non-judgmental of our wandering minds and then refocus the attention on the present moment, whether that be getting in touch with our bodies or engaging in our environment. So, one of the first steps to mindfulness is taking the pressure off of yourself to get it ‘just right.’ This can be extremely hard especially if you struggle with perfectionistic tendencies or high anxiety.
Mindfulness vs Relaxation
Mindfulness is not relaxation or meditation. It doesn’t turn your brain off and it doesn’t get rid of difficult thoughts. Mindfulness can be one component of meditation or relaxation.
Think of Mindfulness as an umbrella term with different skills falling underneath. These skills include meditation, relaxation techniques, deep breathing, body scans, imagery, acceptance skills, and more.
Relaxation differs from mindfulness because the objective of each practice is different. That is, relaxation is about entering a state of being relaxed and calm. Whereas the objective in mindfulness is to pay attention to the present moment, even when you aren’t relaxed. So technically, you can be mindful in a ‘non-relaxing’ situation.
Why practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness has been shown to be an effective skill for treating many different mental health struggles, specifically those who struggle with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
According to the ADAA, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a mental health condition that impacts approximately 6.8 million adults in the United States. If you struggle with racing thoughts, constant worry, and the tendency to overanalyze situations, engaging in mindfulness activities can be helpful. It helps you to refocus from living in the future to living in the here and now.
Many individuals with GAD live in the future. Meaning that they are frequently assessing for danger and thinking about the worst-case scenarios, even if they know the worst-case scenarios are highly unlikely.
The goal of mindfulness is to pay attention to the current moment in an open and non-judgmental way. This means that your attention is focused on the present, noticing the various thoughts and emotions that pop up. And, you non-judgmentally notice these thoughts and emotions for what they are; just neural firings of the brain.
Mindfulness Skill: Dropping an Anchor
Here’s a mindfulness skill that you could practice. If you are someone who struggles with anxiety at work, for example, this skill may be very helpful. To get started, allow me to paint a picture.
Many people who have high anxiety at work may struggle with perfectionistic tendencies. Their anxiety may be highly related to the fear of disappointing others, doubting their abilities, wanting to perform at a high standard, etc. Anytime, they feel like they aren’t living up to what they “should” be doing, anxiety increases and the worst -case scenario ‘doom’ thinking begins.
They may start thinking “I suck at my job and everyone knows” or “If I don’t do this perfectly, I’ll get fired” or “if I make a mistake, I’ll be a disappointment and won’t get that promotion.” If you find yourself getting caught up with this type of thought process, try this skill called dropping an anchor. The objective is to help you move from future thinking to the present moment.
How to drop anchor: 3 steps
- Allow. This is a very important part of dropping an anchor. Instead of trying to get rid of our thoughts, we are going to just allow them to be there and look at them for what they are, just thoughts. You can try to say to yourself, “I’m having a thought that…I’m going to get fired” or stating “naturally, my mind is wandering.”
Why is this step so important? Often, the more we try to get rid of our thoughts or tell ourselves to “not think that way” the more we fuel the thought. For example, if I tell you to not think of an orange carrot right now – what are you going to think about?!
- Connect with your body. Focus on your breathing, tune in to any tension you are experiencing in your body, shake your arms, or plant your feet onto the floor. Notice the sensations you are experiencing in your body when you do this.
- Engage with your environment. Look around the room and try to name 5 things you can see that are white. Pick up a cold bottle of water or a hot cup of tea and notice how the temperature feels on your hands. Take note of any noises you may be hearing.
Mindfulness is a great tool to use when struggling with anxiety. It’s also a great skill if you have the goal of being more present in your day-to-day activities. If you are needing additional support contacting the present moment and increasing mindfulness skills, therapy can help! Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) are all different types of therapies that can help increase your mindfulness.
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