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Understanding & utilizing mindfulness

Understanding & utilizing mindfulness

To be fully present as a human being—that’s the goal of mindfulness. Though it sounds lofty, being mindful isn’t nearly as difficult or strenuous as it appears on the surface. Mindfulness is about coming to terms with reality and how our personal experiences truly make us feel. It’s about the presence of mind and body.

You might not know where to begin on your mindfulness journey. To help you get started, we’ve provided a sure-fire guide to explain the ins and outs of mindful living. With help from Thriveworks, you can learn to expand your awareness. From meditation to body scans to the benefits of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, you’ll discover how to implement your own mindfulness practices. 

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the process of increasing one’s awareness in three key areas. These include: 

  • Emotional awareness: Emotional awareness involves taking stock of one’s state of mind, evaluating whether it’s ultimately harmful to oneself or others. Over time, mindfulness practitioners will start to recognize their own habits or situations that pull them into negative headspaces. 
  • Physical awareness: Mindfulness can help promote physical awareness and increased health as practitioners begin to recognize the connection between their mind and body, which may be heavily affected by their emotional state. 
  • Awareness of impermanence: Life around us is in a constant state of change—learning to accept that we can’t prevent fluctuations, both internally and externally is key. Remaining mindful means adapting to and not resisting changes in our life; after all, change can be a powerful force for good. 

Mindfulness aims to bring peace and stability to practitioners, as well as the people and things they interact with. It’s founded on the rationale that the more we understand and comprehend the world around us, the more we can reduce our negative thoughts, speech, and action, creating less turmoil. Mindfulness is an effort towards increased well-being, for both ourselves and others, too. 

What Is the Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation?

Mindfulness and meditation are closely related, but they aren’t the same. Whereas mindfulness focuses on increasing our awareness of “things” over time, meditation teaches practitioners to subdue their conscious thoughts until they’re eventually able to become aware of “nothing.” 

If it seems like the concept of meditation is hard to pin down, that’s because few words in English successfully capture the scope and wide variety of meditative practices. In Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain beliefs, from which the concept of westernized mindfulness is primarily borrowed, there are many different forms of meditation described in detail. Western meditation, from which our mindfulness practices arise, is a fusion of three yogic concepts

  • Dharana (which means “to focus on one idea, image, or emotion”—even the concept of nothing) 
  • Dhyana (which translates approximately to “concentration” in English)
  • Samadhi (meaning “pure mental absorption”, a sustained meditative state, the goal of mindfulness practice)

These concepts serve as a 3-step system, wherein the practitioner can begin to focus, finding a concept to visualize or otherwise evaluate mentally. From there, they apply concentration to their mental subject matter, until all other passing thoughts and feelings fall to the wayside, leaving them free of mental fetters. 

What Are the Three Components of Mindfulness?

As stated above, there are multiple components to mindfulness-based traditional practices that many cultures, including Hindu and Buddhist belief systems, ascribe to. Yet broadly speaking, three core elements should be considered when embarking on the practice of mindfulness. These are: 

Attention: A certain amount of awareness is needed to notice adjustments in our physical and mental wellbeing. This attention will help those practicing mindfulness to remain cognizant of their emotional state, and to be empathetic towards the thoughts and experiences of others, too. 

Intention: As with any therapeutic method, the individuals participating must outline clear goals for themselves—they must have solid intentions. The intentions of a mindfulness practitioner might vary, depending on their personal experience and desires. Generally, a mindfulness practice aims to expand one’s ability to empathize, regulate their emotions, and grow: Be it spiritually, emotionally, or physically. Perhaps even all three! 

Attitude: Without the right attitude, remaining truly mindful isn’t possible. A balanced mindfulness practice often aims to highlight objective truths, which don’t play into the practitioner’s ego. For example, in an argument between a practitioner and their partner, they would aim to understand as much as possible about their partner’s perspective before reacting with their own harsh words or actions. 

This behavior isn’t meant to take power, control, or logic away from the practitioner, but instead to help them understand the root of the issues and events in their lives. This in turn may highlight that many negative emotional states may arise from mostly resolvable issues. 

Why Is Mindfulness Important?

Mindfulness is an important part of self-care because it emphasizes that peace or emotional stability is not the primary goal of life—but is instead the bare minimum required to enjoy our daily experience. In this way, mindfulness offers each individual the opportunity to make the most out of their experiences, good or bad. 

When someone remains mindful as they interact with others and the world around them, they may glean insights into harmful patterns of behavior that could be causing them undue mental stress or emotional or physical pain. Many of us practice mindfulness already, sometimes without even realizing that we’re doing so. 

How Do You Practice Mindfulness?

Mindfulness doesn’t require becoming a monk or a nun or secluding oneself in a Himalayan cave—overthinking, or trying too hard is often a pitfall for those seeking to employ a regular mindfulness practice. Mindfulness isn’t a separate activity from the rest of our lives; it can only be conducted hand in hand with our daily activities. If done successfully, mindfulness can be highly rewarding. Practicing mindfulness regularly might entail: 

  • Paying attention to your reactions: If certain events or scenarios (or people) trigger unpleasant sensations, identifying these factors can help an individual learn to control negative states of mind. 
  • Postponing judgment against others: For anyone, including those with mental health conditions or challenges such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), PTSD, trauma, or ODD, it can often be hard to cooperate or give others the benefit of the doubt in personal relationships and professional interactions. Much like dialectal behavioral therapy (DBT), mindfulness practice can provide those with behavioral challenges with enough emotional insulation to cope with interpersonal challenges. 
  • Listening to the needs of your body: The body will often provide us with clues as to how our mind is functioning. For example, when we’re hungry—we want food, and some even become “hangry” as a result. But when we’re constantly stressed, we may fail to recognize that our body responds in turn; chronic stress tightens our muscles, alters our appetite, and slows down digestion. When the grip of negative emotions is loosened, mindfulness practitioners may notice improved digestion, energy levels, lower inflammation, and improved cognitive abilities. 

What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness?

The benefits of mindfulness extend to both our physical and emotional wellbeing, but can also affect less-immediate aspects of our lives, including our interpersonal relationships. Remaining mindful as we interact with the world around us may offer benefits such as: 

  • Greater emotional stability
  • Improved interpersonal relationships
  • Better conflict management skills 
  • Increased empathy towards others 
  • Physical health improvements
  • Dietary improvements 
  • Increased resilience in dealing with chronic stress and mental health conditions 

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How to Practice Mindfulness for Anxiety and Other Conditions?

The best way to use mindfulness to moderate conditions like anxiety, chronic stress, and depression is to implement daily exercises. If you’re trying to imagine a mindfulness exercise, the first thing that comes to mind is probably meditation—and that’s not necessarily wrong. But there are other and equally comprehensive ways to strengthen your mindfulness. These exercises can be practiced alone or with others and might include: 

  • Fostering gratitude: Fostering gratitude is a simple and often overlooked way to remain in emotional balance. As a mindfulness exercise, fostering gratitude involves examining one’s personal life, observing the positive aspects (housing, food, healthy relationships, and more), and appreciating them. This exercise can offset negative emotions, by reminding the practitioner of tangible, positive parts of their life that are still there, regardless of anxiety, fear, or anger. 
  • Controlled breathing methods: Controlled breathing methods allow individuals to moderate their respiratory system. But the benefits go far beyond just that; controlled breathing has been shown to improve resilience against stress, anger, fear, and many other negative states of mind. And from a physiological standpoint, controlled breathing has even been shown to be an effective way for people to regulate their body temperature and pain tolerance—something that the sadhus and monks eastern traditions have been doing for millennia. 
  • Walking meditation: Walking meditations are a way to practice reflecting on the present moment, but unlike sitting meditations, involve actively taking part in the life around us. The benefits of a walking meditation might include forced changes in perspective—the idea being that the evolving scenery around the practitioner can allow them to actively adapt to thoughts and feelings as they surface. This process acts as training for the ultimate goal of mindfulness practice—to incorporate the emotional stability gained by meditation in daily life, without having to sit down and close one’s eyes. 

How to Practice Mindfulness Throughout the Day?

One of the crucial cogs that make up a successful mindfulness practice is sustainability, meaning that we must examine the present moment. We must evaluate whether our current or potential actions, words, or emotions are beneficial or harmful for ourselves and others in the long term. Though this might sound like a taxing process, it isn’t. The goal of mindfulness is to avoid the emotional and physical ailments and pitfalls that inevitably strike us when we’re unaware or non-mindful of our own experience. 

To practice mindfulness throughout the day, consider: 

  • The intentions behind your thoughts or actions: When considering your intentions, the goal is to identify whether you are acting from a negative state of mind—be it anger, fear, anxiety, or stress. These emotions are entirely valid, and shouldn’t be ignored, but if someone or something is stimulating these feelings inside of us, it’s better to express our displeasure using assertive anger. This entails expressing the problem without reacting harmfully, be it physically or verbally. This ensures that a solution can still be found, even if negative emotions are present. 
  • Whether your potential thoughts, actions, or speech are beneficial for yourself or those around you: Starting in the morning, it’s easy to follow our mood as we begin to get ready for what the day might bring. For some, anxiety sets in as they get out of bed, staying with them until they fall asleep that evening. For others, a relatively minor event may trigger anger and frustration that changes their mood and the course of their day. When we react using our immediate response to these visceral emotions, we aren’t being mindful—we’re focused on survival, feeling our fight-or-flight response being triggered. 
  • Your personal goals, and whether or not you are working towards meeting them, or working against them: Personal goals are usually set up to attain our deeper desires, typically to experience more happiness, fulfillment, or physical or mental health. But when our emotions sidetrack us, our day can be derailed, and our plans and goals go out the window. The best way to achieve your goals and to start practicing mindfulness throughout the day is to follow the path your emotional state makes. The reason why? The closer attention we pay to our emotional health, the more quickly we can correct negative thoughts and feelings when they arise—saving us time, and physical and mental energy, too. 

What Is Mindfulness Therapy?

Mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches take the core components of mindfulness (attention, intention, and attitude) and use them to create a more comprehensive and personalized counseling method for those seeking mental health services. The most common form of mindfulness therapy is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). 

MBCT takes elements from the most popular counseling methodology, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and mindfulness to create a highly customizable and applicable approach. Just like with any other counseling method or approach, MBCT can be highly subjective and depends on the client’s goals and mental health needs. Some core features of MBCT, however, can include: 

  • Mindfulness stretching: This exercise aims to highlight the mind-body connection, which many individuals may lose sight of throughout the day. It’s been proven that tension in our muscles and joints, including inflammation, can be worsened or even triggered by chronic stress and anxiety. Mindfulness stretching involves focusing on these issues in order to lessen mental fatigue through physical activity. 
  • Body scan exercises: Similar to mindfulness stretching, body scan exercises help clients to remain aware of held tension in the body. This might take place before, or after meditating. A successful body scan involves paying close attention to all four limbs, the torso, head, neck, and extremities—looking for areas that seem to feel attached to anxiety, stress, depression, or anger. 
  • Personalized mindfulness practices: A personalized mindfulness practice may be created with the help of a therapist or counselor, who may assist the client in identifying potential relationships or situations that act as triggers for negative thoughts and emotions. The client may then be able to interact differently with the people, events, or thoughts that are causing psychological distress in a more beneficial and benevolent way. 

MBCT can help reduce the symptoms of depressive disorders in those currently suffering, and can also help reduce the likelihood of an individual experiencing another depressive episode. A 2016 study indicated that MBCT works as well as antidepressant medication at helping those with depression to manage their symptoms. 

  • Writer
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Jason CrosbyMental Health Writer

Jason Crosby is a Senior Copywriter at Thriveworks. He received his BA in English Writing from Montana State University with a minor in English Literature. Previously, Jason was a freelance writer for publications based in Seattle, WA, and Austin, TX.

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