The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said:
If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.
And, after roughly 100 years of psychotherapy, we’ve come to pretty much the same conclusion.
So, what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be described as either: 1) a state of being conscious or aware; or 2) a state of calmness achieved by focusing on the present moment while simultaneously noticing one’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and bodily sensations. It is this latter definition that we refer to when describing a therapeutic technique used to help relieve depression and anxiety.
In this method, clients are asked to sit quietly and focus on their breathing. Once relaxed, clients are instructed to simply notice the different sensations that occur within. The element of relaxing, rather than judging, is what makes this technique so effective. Most of us are hard-wired to judge our emotions, labeling them “negative” or “unhelpful” when they feel unpleasant. But if we can become accustomed to noticing what is happening inside, without panicking over it, then we can begin to understand the temporary nature of emotions, feelings, and physical sensations. In this way, we can learn to ride the waves instead of helplessly standing at the shore trying to stop them.
For some people, particularly in the early stages of therapy, the idea of sitting still is terrifying. After all, most of our painful thoughts tend to arise when we are idle. For this reason, there are a host of other mindfulness exercises, such as alternate nostril breathing, walking meditations, and eating meditations to try. While different in their approaches, each method is geared at helping the practitioner return to the present moment.
One of the pioneers of the mindfulness research movement is Dr. Daniel Siegel out of the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Siegel is executive director of The Mindsight Institute which continues to advocate for the use of mindfulness exercises to alleviate a variety of mental and physical symptoms. Just some of the clinically proven uses for this approach include:
decreasing binge eating
decreasing perceived stress levels
decreasing drug use
improving body image
improving overall sense of health and well-being
The evidence suggests that mindfulness changes the brain, at a neural level, and that the effects build on themselves over time. The way that Dr. Siegel explains it is that we have pathways in our brains, which he likens to train tracks. The more that a certain thought, or behavior, occurs, the deeper the ridges in the tracks. In this way, certain thoughts and behaviors become second nature to us. Therefore, if we practice mindfulness on a regular basis, becoming relaxed will start to happen easier and quicker for us, whenever we focus our attention inward.
This is great news for those of us who weren’t born with easy-breezy personalities. With a little help, we can all be as cool as cucumbers! Or, at least lukewarm. Depending on where we started.
If you would like more information on how mindfulness can help you, contact us. We are more than happy to help!