“The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.” –Abraham Maslow
Multitasking is becoming an increasingly popular, and seemingly necessary, means of getting through everyday life – cooking dinner while watching the kids, folding the laundry while planning tomorrow’s schedule, driving to work while talking on the phone. But in the midst of accomplishing goals and completing tasks, you may find that you’ve lost a sense of connection with the present moment.
It seems that so many of us are hung-up on the past or preoccupied planning for the future, that the present moment gets disregarded. This tendency to mentally gravitate away from the present can be detrimental to our wellbeing, as this is where true happiness and peace of mind lie. Fortunately for us, psychologists have been busy at work devising ways to help us stay on track, and at the forefront of these techniques is mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment. It allows you to slow down and thoughtfully ground yourself in the reality of what is happening right here, right now. Sensations arise, thoughts flow – but instead of getting caught up in them, you are able to simply observe. There is no resistance, judgment, or desire to change your thoughts. Instead, acceptance is coupled with concentration as you maintain a moment-to-moment awareness.
How can it help you?
The number and variety of benefits associated with practicing mindfulness may surprise you, considering that all it really entails is focusing on your current task at hand. How important can that really be?
For starters, adopting a mindful mental state can directly affect physical health.
- A recent study found that, after just eight weeks of practice, mindfulness significantly boosted participants’ immune system function.
- Fight weight gain (and the accompanying diseases and health risks associated with it) by practicing “mindful eating”. Doctors have found that meal-time mindfulness encourages healthier eating habits, promotes healthy weight lose, and helps people to savor and better enjoy the foods they eat.
- Mindfulness has also been found to help treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties.
All of that from just a simple shift of awareness. Not bad, huh?
Of course, there’s a myriad of mental and emotional health benefits as well, with a hearty body of scientific research to back them up.
- Several studies have found that mindfulness increases positive emotions, while decreasing negative emotions and stress. In fact, one study even found mindfulness to be as effective as antidepressants in fighting depression.
- Mindfulness can boost our ability to focus, help us to tune out distractions, and improve our memory and attention skills.
- Researchers have found that incorporating a mindfulness practice in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) results in an increased reduction of symptoms.
- Recent research in the emerging field of neuroplasticity has found that practicing mindfulness increases density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy.
- Mental health professionals are incorporating mindfulness meditation in the treatment of depression, anger, substance abuse disorders, eating disorders, couples’ conflicts, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
How does it work?
In addition to boosting our overall sense of wellbeing and inner peace on a daily basis, mindfulness is of key importance during times of conflict as well. Some experts believe that mindfulness works in part by helping people to accept their experiences – including painful emotions – rather than negatively react to them.
By remaining present in challenging circumstances and situations, many people find that they have space to pause before automatic reactions take over. Instead of becoming distressed, overwhelmed, or angry, you are able to take a step back in order to then move forward in the best, most constructive way possible. Instead of becoming swept up in escalating negative emotions, mindful awareness opens our eyes to the choices we have in the ways that we respond to situations and people. Recognizing that your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you can free you from reactive behavior and negative thought patterns.
How can you easily incorporate it into your life?
While many powerful and effective mindfulness meditation practices exists, formal meditation is not always necessary to tap into this heightened state of awareness. You can cultivate mindfulness informally by focusing your attention on your moment-to-moment sensations during everyday activities. This is done by single-tasking – doing one thing at a time and giving it your full attention. Next time you brush your teeth, pet the dog, prepare a meal, take a shower, chat with a family member, or eat an apple, slow the process down and be fully present to the experience.
A good place to start when you’re feeling a bit mentally off track throughout the day:
- Start by bringing your attention to the sensations in your body.
- Breathe deeply in through your nose, allowing the air to move downward into your lower belly. Let your abdomen expand fully.
- Now breathe out through your mouth.
- Notice the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation.
- Proceed with the task at hand slowly and with full deliberation.
- Engage your senses fully. Notice each sight, touch, taste, and sound so that you become fully connected with the moment.