How to Practice Mindfulness
Learn more about what mindfulness is, the benefits of this tool, and how to properly practice mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s own experience without judgment. The principles of mindfulness state that when we train our mind to be fully in the moment, it can calm our sympathetic nervous system, also known as our “fight or flight” response, and helps reduce overall stress levels.
Mindfulness activities are attributed to many mental health benefits, including relief from symptoms of depression and anxiety, better regulation of your emotions, boosted memory, and thinking more flexibly. Practicing mindfulness also increases self-esteem and self-awareness.
Mindfulness vs. Meditation
While mindfulness and meditation are related, they are not the same. Mindfulness simply means being aware of the present moment, and meditation falls under the umbrella of mindfulness. Meditation is a technique that can help you reach a state of mindfulness. Meditation is a way of training your attention to reach a state of concentration and positive emotion.1
Mindfulness vs. Flow
Mindfulness is a state of what is happening at the moment, while flow is a state where you are immersed and completely in a task, holding all distractions at bay. It is complete absorption in what you are doing, without thought toward discomfort, hunger, thirst, or other bodily needs. Flow stays on task, and being mindful is open to whatever arises.
Reasons to Start Practicing Mindfulness
There are numerous reasons to begin practicing mindfulness exercises that can benefit one’s mental health. These reasons are detailed below.
Practicing mindfulness can help with emotional flexibility, which is related to lower rates of emotional distress. Being mindful reduces rumination, or constant and repetitive thoughts about one’s problems. It can increase creative thinking, strengthen the accuracy of memories, and improve mental functioning in people who have experienced trauma. Corcoran et al. theorize that mindfulness meditation promotes metacognitive awareness, decreases rumination via disengagement from perseverative cognitive activities, and enhances attentional capacities through gains in working memory; these cognitive gains, in turn, contribute to effective emotion regulation strategies.2
Another one of the benefits of mindfulness is having healthier interpersonal relationships. The practice of mindfulness can help you feel more comfortable in group settings. You may become more comfortable with expressions of feelings, beliefs, and emotions, and you may become more open to giving and receiving compliments.
There are also professional benefits of mindfulness practice, including the ability to adapt quickly, reduce “brain fog”, increase your ability to problem solve, and gain perspective about the job that must be done. Practical reasons for practicing mindfulness and the principle of mindfulness are that it gives you more control over your emotions, enhances your ability to recognize bad habits, and it shifts the mood centers of the brain.
Common Examples of Mindfulness Exercises
While the concept of mindfulness may seem pretty broad and abstract, mindfulness practices are fairly simple to begin implementing. Some common examples of mindfulness exercises include:
Different Types of Mindfulness Exercises
While there are numerous simple ways of implementing mindfulness (as listed above), there are also more specific practices that can be implemented to maximize mindfulness.
Body Scan Meditation
Body scan meditation is a mindfulness practice that brings attention to sensations happening in your body, such as pain, discomfort, tightness in the muscles, tingling, or heat and cold sensations. To practice this type of mindfulness, sit or lay in a position that is most comfortable for you, close your eyes, and focus your attention on your breathing and on your body. You can bring attention to any part of the body, but many people either start at the top of their head or the tips of their toes.
Scan each area individually before moving on to the next. Notice all bodily sensations, knowing that noticing nothing at all is fine as well. Scan your head, then your neck and shoulders, and continue to move down the body. Once you have scanned your entire body, be sure to get up slowly.
Sit in a cross-legged position or position that is most comfortable for you, using mats or pillows as needed to create a comfortable space. Try to straighten your spine, and feel as if someone is lifting you toward the sky by the top of your head. Your eyes and mouth should be closed and relaxed.
To prevent the clenching and tightening of the jaw and mouth, pull the tongue away from the top of your mouth and allow your jaw to go slack. Attention to breathing is the focus of this mindful meditation. Some people count breaths to focus, while others use mantras to help clear the mind and maintain focus. Thoughts and feelings while practicing mindfulness meditation are completely fine, just try to return to the meditating practice by using a mantra or focusing on your breathing.
Walking meditation is a moving meditation that stems from Buddhist traditions. This form of mindfulness exercise is a way to find wonder in everyday things. Walking meditation is a mindfulness exercise that focuses on awareness of your body in relation to the earth.
Ask yourself the following questions: How do your feet feel as you are grounded to the earth, what are you thinking, and what different sensations are taking place within your body? While practicing this walking meditation, focus on your legs and your feet and the movements of your body as you move forward. While noticing this and any mental events taking place, do so without judgment.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Find a comfortable place to sit, such as a chair, a mat with pillows on the floor, or anywhere you feel most comfortable. The main theme of mindfulness meditation exercises is to be comfortable wherever you are. While this technique may be focused on mindfulness for beginners, it is helpful for anyone to start slow and build their mindfulness practice gradually with a time limit. Take five minutes a day for a few days, slowly increasing your time. Scan your body, starting where you feel most comfortable. Are there any spots that are particularly tight or painful? How does the floor underneath you? Take a deep breath in through your nose, and slowly release it through your mouth. Pay attention to how the breath flows in, increasing the size of your chest and belly, and how the shoulders fall on exhalation. Notice when your mind has wandered, and just focus back on your breath or a chosen mantra. Be kind to your wandering mind.
The Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness
There are many benefits to practicing mindfulness, including the evidence-based benefit of a decrease in stress level, which increases mental and physical health. Intensive training in mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety symptoms and improves the quality of life of patients.
Mindfulness and Athletic Performance
The practice of meditation has been shown to help with athletic performance in both amateur and professional athletes. Mindfulness training offers a range of benefits to competitive athletes, including preventing events such as burnout and emotional/physical exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishment and motivation, dysfunctional coping behavior, depression, and suboptimal response to training.3
Practicing mindfulness, even as a beginner, can help you gain insight and awareness which in turn can increase overall satisfaction in life. Training your mind to be fully in the moment through mindfulness exercises improves both attention and mood.
Another great benefit of mindfulness practice is improvements in sleep. Research findings confirm that mindfulness training leads to improvements in both the quantity and quality of our sleep. Mindfulness helps with relaxation, but more importantly, it can help address underlying issues for poor sleep, such as stress and anxiety.
It might seem far-fetched, but evidence shows that you may be able to control and improve diabetes through the practice of mindfulness. One way that mindfulness may benefit patients with diabetes is by fostering more accurate interoception, particularly in the form of blood glucose estimate accuracy.
Interoception is the ability to “feel the feels” of your body. For example, noticing that you are hungry by hearing your stomach growl is an example of interoception, or feeling “hangry” as an indication that your blood sugars are dropping. Mindfulness creates awareness of your body in time and space. 4
Mindfulness-Based Therapy for Mental Health
There are numerous mindfulness-based therapy programs that combine traditional therapy techniques with mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, is a form of therapy that has been around for approximately forty years. This eight-week therapy program is based on the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and meditation and was created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. Participants practice at home for forty-five minutes to an hour per session, using audio guidance with an in-person or online meet-up once a week.5
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a form of therapy that combines cognitive therapy and mindfulness exercises. MBCT, like MBSR, is used to help improve the lives of people with chronic clinical issues and high stress.
Mindfulness-Based Pain Management (MBPM)
Mindfulness-based pain management (MBPM) is based on MBSR principles and is an intervention using mindful meditation to help with nonpharmacological pain control. This practice was created by Vidyalama Burch, who received training from Jon Kabat-Zinn. The origin of this mindful counseling technique has roots in Buddhist principles of suffering, self-love, and mindfulness. This therapy is primarily delivered through Breathworks CIC.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and commitment therapy stems from cognitive behavioral therapy and traditional behavioral therapy. ACT was developed to help with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, workplace stress, as well as other psychologically-based matters.
ACT aims to expand mental and emotional flexibility through acceptance and acknowledgment of one’s thoughts and feelings. The exercise of being present in the moment is a large component of this mindful counseling modality. The basic premise is to allow oneself to accept uncomfortable psychological experiences instead of trying to control or distract from painful emotions.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
Dialectical behavior therapy is a form of talk therapy based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; however, it is generally used for people who have strong emotions and is particularly helpful for those with borderline personality disorders. It works by helping people accept the reality of their lives while investigating the challenges and benefits of change.
Mode Deactivation Therapy (MDT)
Mode deactivation therapy is a form of CBT that was initially targeted toward adolescents with severe emotional trauma and complex psychological issues. The application of MDT integrates the unique validation–clarification–redirection (VCR) process step with selected elements from ACT, DBT, and mindfulness practices.
There are many other forms of therapy including psychoanalysis, emotion-focused therapy, parent work, and psychodynamic therapy. Many forms of therapy use mindfulness activities, mindfulness techniques, and meditation within their practice.
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