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Mindfulness and Your Mental Health

Have you ever been told that your anxiety or your depression is “all in your head” and that if you just stopped fixating on it so much that you could get better? Unfortunately, if you are affected by anxiety and/or depression, this may be something that you have heard before at least once, if not several times. 

And while there is nothing more annoying than essentially being told that you are perpetuating your mental illness, it is also important to note that there may be some tiny level of truth to that statement. Now, just to be clear, this does not mean that your mental illness is entirely self-created by your thought patterns. However, it does mean that our thoughts can affect our moods and can thus play a role in anxiety and depression. 

But, how do we know exactly what we’re thinking? Which thoughts are good and which are bad? Can what we think truly affect us to such a large extent? The answers to these questions are rooted in understanding the concept of mindfulness. 

Two girls, one with a storm cloud over her head and an upset face, the other with a sun over her head and a happy face

Simply stated, mindfulness is the ability to be mentally present in the present moment. In a more complex sense, mindfulness refers to a self-awareness of what we’re doing, what is happening around us, and what we are directly experiencing and feeling as a result of these external conditions. Being mindful of oneself is the first step to understanding one’s emotions and thought patterns, and how they relate to one’s overall mood and well-being. 

For this reason, mindfulness is often used in coordination with psychotherapy to help manage anxiety and depression. The most commonly used psychotherapy approach today is cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, abbreviated as CBT, is centered around the idea that our perceptions or thoughts about situations have a direct affect on our emotional state and overall well-being. 

With this approach, comes the notion that treatment for depression and anxiety can be carried out through identifying and eliminating negative or harmful thought patterns while also identifying and promoting positive or constructive thought patterns. Because mindfulness promotes the awareness of these thoughts, both positive and negative, it can be used as a tool in CBT. 

A recent research study at Western Washington University split a group of 115 male and female undergraduate students with no prior meditation experience in half. Half of the group participated in a meditation group, and the other half was waitlisted. Both groups were then asked to complete a survey about their mindfulness levels, stress, and coping flexibility. Even though the study was only a week long, those in the meditation group reported significantly lower levels of stress and higher coping ability. Those who practiced meditation outside of the designated time reported the lowest levels of stress and the highest ability for coping.  

While mindfulness may not be effective for every single mental health disorder, it has been found to be especially helpful in stress reduction, emotional or attention regulation, decreasing anxiety and depression, and in preventing depression relapse. In some cases, mindfulness may be used independently for treatment, and in other cases it may be used in coordination with other treatments.

Mindful woman sitting with her eyes closed and head tilted upward

There are different approaches to using mindfulness. To simply be “mindful” you only need to set aside some time in your day to observe the present moment. Contrary to popular thought, the main aim of mindfulness is not to completely silence your mind, but to pay attention to the present without judgment. This takes practice, however, and at first you will need to make a mental note of the judgment and then let it pass. It is important to be compassionate to your wandering mind and simply bring yourself back to observing the present moment. 

Some people also like to use meditation as a way of being mindful. To meditate, one simply sits on the ground or in a chair, with their spine straightened but soft, arms resting on one’s lap, and a softened downward gaze. Then you bring your attention to your breathing and what your body is doing in response to each breath. Meditation uses breathing as an anchor to the present moment because it gives you a tangible thing to focus on. With meditation, when your mind wanders, you simply go back to paying attention to your breathing to recenter yourself. In addition to traditional meditation, there are specialized forms of meditation, such as a loving kindness meditation, which focuses on self-love. 

Banner showing the benefits of meditation

For those who resent the act of sitting still, walking meditation may be a better alternative. Instead of breath, walking meditation uses the motion of walking to ground you to the present moment. To begin, your upper body is in a similar position as traditional meditation. That is, your back is straight and soft, your gaze is slightly downward, and your hands will sit just above your belly button wrapped in each other. As you step, pay close attention to the swing of your foot, the impact as the various structures hit the ground, and rise as the weight shifts to the next foot. When your mind wanders, bring it back to what your feet are doing. 

If meditation of any kind is just not your thing, there are other ways you can practice mindfulness in your everyday routine. Let’s take a look at some of the ways you can incorporate mindfulness into your everyday routine: 

Start Your Day Off Right: when you wake in the morning, sit up in bed and take 3-5 mindful breaths. Pay attention to your breath and then ask yourself what your intention is for the day. Take a moment to decide on one intention and set that as your motivation for the rest of the day. As the day continues, be sure to check in with yourself and continue to do things that align with your intention. 

Mindful Eating: most of us love eating, so this is the perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness. To begin a mindful eating practice, start off by pausing before your meal and taking a few breaths. Ask yourself how hungry you are and then start eating according to your hunger level. Practice eating slowly and really savoring each and every bite. Pay special attention to the texture, taste, temperature, and color of your food, as well as how the simple act of eating feels. 

Do the Dishes: the dishes need to be done anyway, so might as well use the act of washing dishes as a mindfulness exercise. Instead of just rushing through washing the dishes to be done, slow down and pay attention to the sensory input involved in washing the dishes. What do your hands feel? What does the soap smell like? What does the water sound like? What colors are in front of you? What did the food taste like that you are washing off the dishes? This is one of the easiest and more productive ways to practice mindfulness and calm your mind. 

Notice Tension: every now and then, take a short break and look for sources of tension in your body. Chances are, you will often find tension stored in your neck, shoulders, stomach, jaw, or back. First, try and relieve excess tension by breathing, then try stretching to alleviate some of the tension. Some people even recommend doing yoga at least once a day to help your body stretch and reduce excess tension. 

To learn more about mindfulness and how to incorporate it into your everyday life, schedule a consultation with a psychotherapist at NJ Family Psychiatry & Therapy today!

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