Mindfulness: How to Exercise a “Muscle” for Emotional Well-Being

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a special kind of awareness – the awareness that comes when we purposefully pay attention to the present moment without judgment. It may look like formal meditation (e.g. a narrated loving-kindness meditation), informal meditation (meaningful pauses throughout the day), or mindful movement (e.g. yoga or stretching).

Mindfulness is the opposite of being disconnected, caught up in the past or afraid of the future, or being on “autopilot.” It isn’t meant to help you avoid, suppress, or distract yourself from emotions, behaviors, or experiences. It isn’t about forcing your thoughts or feelings to change.  Mindfulness is about experiencing emotions, thoughts, and sensations in a way that will allow you to have a healthier relationship with and response to those elements of your everyday life.

 Why Practice Mindfulness?

Practicing mindfulness has been found to have a multitude of physical, mental, and emotional benefits, including improved resilience, self-concept, energy, positive emotions, openness, enthusiasm, self-control, and ability to relax. It has also been associated with decreased depression (including prevention of relapse), anxiety, loneliness, pain, and relationship issues.

Mindfulness helps to rebalance the “thinking” and the “feeling” parts of the brain so you can be problem-solving oriented rather than overwhelmed with anxiety and other negative emotions.  Mindfulness can also help you tap into resources that you already have so you can not only rise to challenges but engage with parts of your everyday life in a more meaningful way.

How Can You Practice Mindfulness?

Mindfulness takes patience, compassion, and courage. If you feel like you don’t have much of those right now, don’t worry. Act on what you do have to start practicing and it will pay off because one of the great things about mindfulness is that it also helps cultivate patience, compassion, and courage. Don’t try to force this new awareness, be careful about having specific expectations, and remember that it’s okay to struggle with it, especially at first.

You can start practicing mindfulness without a formal exercise. As you’re going about daily tasks, just do and focus on one thing at a time whenever you can. It’s natural for thoughts to wander, so when your attention wanders from the present task, gently guide it back. You can also practice “noticing what you notice” throughout the day. This could be your reactions to events, such as getting stuck at a red light. Try to do this without judging the moment or reaction; it’s about becoming aware of what’s already going on, which will help your brain respond in a healthier way.

If you’d like to go further with mindfulness, here are a few practices to try:

1. Mindful Breathing

Get into a comfortable position and close your eyes. Turn your attention to your breath, noticing what it feels like as it flows in and out of your body. Breathe slowly and pay attention to your stomach. Feel it expand and sink with the breath. Let yourself fully experience your breath in this moment and throughout your body. Whenever your mind wanders, acknowledge the distraction and gently guide your thoughts back to the breath. Continue for about ten minutes.

2. The Raisin Exercise

Hold a raisin (a grape or berry will also work) between your finger and thumb and take time to really look at it. Notice its color and texture and the way it interacts with light. Next, notice its scent. Then, without chewing, put the raisin in your mouth. Feel its texture as you move it around. Take one small bite of the raisin, taking in its taste and texture. Maybe there’s a difference between the inside and the outside.  Finally, eat the raisin slowly, noticing all the ways it interacts with your senses.

3. Loving-Kindness Meditation

Find a quiet place and a comfortable position, and approach this exercise with an open heart for yourself and others. Begin with directing kindness and acceptance toward yourself. It’s okay if you resist this idea at first, just breathe and repeat silently: “May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be peaceful and live with ease.

Now turn your thoughts to someone you respect and send this loving-kindness toward them. After a few minutes, think of someone you love unconditionally and silently repeat the mantra. Do the same for an acquaintance you don’t have strong feelings about (positive or negative) and lastly for someone you are struggling with in your life.

  • This particular meditation has been found to lead to an increase in a wide range of positive emotions.

 

Don’t rush these exercises. Let yourself make the most of the moment. For more practices (and extended versions of the ones shared here) to help you cultivate mindfulness, visit berkeley.edu/mindfulness.

Remember, mindfulness is not a quick fix.  It takes time and practice to have this kind of awareness come naturally, but it is worth the effort.  Eventually, you might come to realize that mindfulness is more than a treatment; it can become a way of life.


References

 Akhtar, M. (2018).  Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression.  London, United Kingdom: Watkins Publishing.

Goldin, P. [GoogleTechTalks].  (2008, March 1). Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sf6Q0G1iHBI&t=2308s

Korb, A. (2015). The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007).  The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.  New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

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