Before we can understand how to use mindfulness for anxiety, it is important to first understand what mindfulness is. One definition of mindfulness states: “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment”
Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment.
Considered the father of mindfulness and credited with bringing mindful meditation to Western medicine through his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts medical school, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness simply as awareness. In cultivating curiosity and a beginner’s mind about what we are aware of at any given time, he believes we continually gain insight about ourselves, always asking, but never quite knowing who we are. As humans, he believes we innately seek to understand our senses, interpret our awareness, and tune into who we are, and what we need to do. And this is a natural instinct that helps us interpret and make use of our emotional states.
Based on Buddhist principles of meditation and self-acceptance, mindfulness practice is associated with a variety of positive outcomes including happiness and reduced anxiety and stress. Through brain scan imagery, mindfulness practice has been shown to increase density in areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation and control.
Mindfulness is really about noticing, paying attention to yourself, and accepting yourself right now.
Here are 5 exercises to use mindfulness for anxiety and stress.
1. Notice your breathing, and concentrate on it. No judgment. No manipulation. Just start with noticing the amazing process of breathing that is your body regulating itself at a cellular level that you don’t need to control. Notice your breath in, and notice your breath out. Stay with paying attention through the whole breath — from the in through the out and back in again — that way there is never a time that you aren’t noticing. When your mind starts to drift away from the breath, gently bring it back to the breath. This is concentration and the practice of it through this simple exercise will help you grow awareness in your body.
2. Lengthen and deepen your breath: Once you have spent a few breath cycles tuned into your breath, notice it’s pace and depth. If you are feeling stressed or anxious, this will be harder than it sounds. Stay with it and see if in following your breath you can deepen and lengthen your breath.
Hold for 4-5 counts as you breathe in through your nose into your belly, hold for 1-2 counts, and release the breath through your mouth for 5-6 counts, pushing the air out of your belly. After a brief pause, repeat the cycle again, focusing on lengthening your breath, and deepening it so that your belly (around your waistline) protrudes. Slow belly breathing can reverse a stress response signaling to your brain that it is safe to relax.
3. Awareness of your body: As you focus and lengthen your breath, expand your awareness to other parts of your body and notice what you are experiencing. What do you notice scanning your five senses?
- What are you looking at, and what is in front of you?
- What can you hear around you, within you? Are birds chirping, rain falling, stomach growling?
- Can you smell or taste anything distinctive?
- How does your body feel? Are you comfortable, uncomfortable? Where, how? Can you soften into any discomfort you are feeling? How is the Earth supporting you, and can you relax into that feeling of being held?
- Scanning your face, head, shoulders, arms, fingers, belly, hips, thighs, calves, and feet. Where do you feel tension that you can breathe into and ease?
Becoming aware of our body in the moment keeps us present in our own physical experience, and grows tolerance of noticing, and or feeling. Listening to the body’s signals can be a powerful practice of paying attention, and listening. What can you learn about your body at this moment?
4. Awareness of your thoughts and feelings: Notice where your mind is. What are you thinking, how are you feeling? Surf the wave of your thoughts and feelings, noticing them float by without attaching to them. If you find yourself drawn in by a thought, notice it, name it, and resume a stance of curiosity. Notice your mind’s activity, rather than reacting to it.
5. Self-compassion: According to MBSR model, self-compassion is the willingness to practice kindness, love, and acceptance toward yourself. Cultivating self-compassion isn’t about conditions or achievements, or feeling proud when life is going well. It’s about loving yourself when those things aren’t happening, and just because you deserve compassion and acceptance for who you are. Right now. Imperfections and all.
Mindfulness is an attitude of curiosity about the present moment in time—your present moment in time. Whether you use one or all of the strategies above, know that they are just a sampling of ways you can practice tuning into your experience and cultivating awareness. The more you try it, the easier it will become. You don’t need a lot of time. Even five minutes can help.
Combining relaxation, self-acceptance, and sensory awareness, mindfulness helps people tune into their experience, with acceptance and curiosity. This mindset of curiosity allows for pause—even thinking—about what his happening, which in turn precludes reacting. With practice, mindfulness has been associated with a greater ability to understand and cope with uncomfortable emotional experiences. In this way, awareness is the gateway to control and relief.
This post originally appeared on Dr. Clark's blog.