Women are more than twice as likely as men to get an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Anxiety can be effectively treated with therapy and medication, but there is a time-honored treatment that doesn’t require a prescription. It’s called mindfulness, and it is a proven way to improve your mental and emotional fitness. Although it likely won’t cure a serious disorder, it provides a coping strategy and guidebook for doing more than just enduring the unendurable. It can actually help you feel better. So what is it, what are some good mindfulness exercises, and how do you get started?
The Mind Matters
Our thoughts drive our actions. Past actions dominate our thoughts. The mind becomes a boiling caldron: a cacophony full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Most of us stress over things that are beyond our control. We replay in our minds mistakes we made ten years ago or spin endless “what ifs?” about the future. Mindfulness can strengthen our mental and emotional fitness. It can silence our inner critic while shifting our focus to things we can actually change. So what is it?
Mindfulness was a technique first discussed in Buddha’s Satipatthana Sutra and in the Abhidharma. These works examine the interplay between emotions and consciousness. Mindfulness is about being focused on the present moment. As Bhikkhu Bodhi explains, The Satipatthana Sutta, also known as the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, is a way of combining energy, mindfulness, and comprehension in the four arousings of mindfulness: body, feelings, consciousness, and mental objects. Instead of a meditation that offers concentration followed by insight, Satipatthana combines them. It teaches unbroken focus on an object –– even when the object itself is changing.
Mindfulness exercises, or meditations, are about non-reactive awareness –– experiencing a moment while being free of judgment. It has been used in yoga and in therapy. It can be done at any point when you are awake. In the 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn developed a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program. Studies of this program revealed it doesn’t just benefit healthy subjects by increasing well-being while decreasing stress and negative emotions. For people dealing with life-threatening illnesses, MBSR led to a decrease in pain intensity, stress, and psychological complaints.
You don’t have to enroll in a clinical study or become a Buddhist monk to access mindfulness. It begins by focusing on the present –– the task at hand. In fact your hands are a great place to start. The next time you dip your digits, take a moment. Focus on what you are doing. Feel the warm water washing over your fingers, enjoy the soap’s soothing lather. Take in its scent, listen to the sounds of your sink. By concentrating on each action you’ll easily exceed the time needed for a thorough cleansing. . When your hands are clean and your mind is a bit more relaxed, reach for a towel.
Another mindfulness habit that strengthens mental and emotional fitness is keeping a gratitude journal. Writing down what you are grateful for can keep you present by focusing on your blessings. Unhappiness often arrives when we focus on what we don’t have. Gratitude journals are about what we already have. Nothing is too small or inconsequential. Your entry might include the joy you feel giving your loyal dog a belly rub, sharing an unexpected giggle with your toddler, or just having enough jelly left for your morning toast. Doing this at night can help you think about the good in your life rather than stressing about what might happen tomorrow. In fact, one way mindfulness improves mental and emotional fitness is through sleep. A study examining younger breast cancer survivors found that those practicing mindfulness exercises not only experienced significant reductions in perceived stress but reported reduced fatigue and sleep disturbance. The study was one of many overseen by the Mindfulness Research at The Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the University of California at Los Angeles. Besides breast cancer survivors, elementary children, pregnant women, and seniors have all demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness exercises.
The fantastic thing about employing mindfulness for your mental and emotional fitness is that it’s always available. You don’t need an appointment, pricey equipment, or hours of study. All you need is to devote a few minutes to your surroundings. You can even do it right now, looking away from the computer screen and focusing on an unmoving object. Concentrate on a table lamp or a bookshelf. Quiet the noise in your head. Don’t worry. The internet will still be here when you return.
- Anxiety disorders
- Mindfulness and emotion regulation: insights from neurobiological, psychological, and clinical studies.
- Mindfulness meditation for younger breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial.
- Randomized controlled pilot trial of mindfulness training for stress reduction during pregnancy.
John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.