Why Practice Mindfulness – “I’m not good at it but I practice it anyway”
Have you heard about mindfulness but are skeptical? Maybe you imagine mindfulness as meditation. You know the image we conjure, a person sitting cross-legged on the floor saying ‘ohm’, completely still and not thinking about anything. That’s not what mindfulness is! So, let’s talk about mindfulness, why I feel like I’m not very good at it but why I practice it anyway.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment in order to prevent us from ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. It’s not an attempt to completely remove our thoughts but be aware of the things happening in the current moment. Think- being with ourselves and actually feeling our feelings.
Why mindfulness is hard?
One of the reasons I think mindfulness is hard is because we generally have an unrealistic expectation of what mindfulness is. Also, most people (myself included) don’t want to be bad at things and mindfulness is a skill you need to practice.
I was first encouraged to engage in mindfulness practice when I started dialectic behavioural therapy (DBT). I’d heard of it before (at the time I was a psychology student in university) but I was skeptical about it being effective.
The first exercise I was encouraged to do was a breathing exercise (which is very common with mindfulness practices, and I will talk a little bit more about later). The first handful of times I tried it, in many different variations, it was unsuccessful. Why? Because I was so fixated on being good at it that I missed the entire point of the practice. Rather than simply paying attention to my breath I was worried I was failing at it because I couldn’t breathe in or out for the total count they suggested. So, instead of being present I was focused on thoughts like ‘why am I so bad at this?’ and it actually made me feel more anxious.
The first time I tried mindfulness was 2015, I believe, which is five years ago. I still practice mindfulness now and to be honest I don’t feel like I’m that much better at it.
Why Practice Mindfulness
I am an anxious person. I continually worry about things that’ve happened in the past, ruminating about small embarrassing moments and taking things people say out of context that convinces me they obviously hate me (they don’t!). On top of that, I spend an equal amount of time worrying about the things that could happen in the future. For me, something like simply test anxiety can turn into spirally thoughts. For example, that I’ll never graduate, or get a decent job, so I might as well quit now as my life is practically already over. Even though past evidence suggests this is untrue and will continue to be untrue. At the beginning of my time in therapy, I didn’t realize how much this prevented me from truly engaging with the present.
Mindfulness works for anxiety. Despite all the research that says mindfulness works, I swore it didn’t for a very long time. Unfortunately, it just took a lot of practice and finding a way to engage with mindfulness in a way that made sense for me. (Not every way of practicing mindfulness is going to work for everyone).
When we’re anxious, regardless of what we are anxious about, we get into our fight-flight-or-freeze response (our stress response). Mindfulness helps to break us out of that. One of the things we likely notice first when we start to feel anxious is our increased heart rate, engaging in a mindful practice helps to control our breathing which reduces our heart rate.
What Mindfulness Practices Work for Me
My go-to mindfulness practice is very basic. I use it when I notice myself getting fixated on particular thoughts or my thoughts are in an escalating feedback loop.
I make sure to put away all distractions like my phone and my laptop. Sit in a comfortable position and close my eyes (I get too distracted by things in my environment but closing your eyes is not essential). Then pay attention to my breathing. I do not try to change my breathing, I just pay attention to it. While doing, it’s important to notice when thoughts enter your mind but let them go without judgement. For me, it’s helpful to say (or think) something like ‘this is just a thought I’m having’.
When my fight or flight is engaged, and I am feeling less in control of my anxiety, I generally require a more focused mindfulness practice such as focused breathing or body scan. This gives my brain a little bit more to focus on which can sometimes help.
A focused breathing exercise requires a person to pay more attention to their breath as well as controlling it.
One of the ways to do this is four stage breathing. The goal is to make each full breath last at least 10 seconds – 5 seconds on the inhale, and 5 seconds on the exhale. You do so by breaking each inhale and exhale into two parts: On the first inhale, fill up most of your lungs; on the second inhale, think about ‘topping up’ your lungs with air. On the first exhale, push out most of the air, and on the second exhale, think about fully emptying your lungs.
This works better for me than some breathing techniques because there is less focus on counting which always throws me off and makes me feel like I’m failing.
I start in the same position as my basic mindfulness practice but ideally sitting on a comfortable chair with my feet on the floor. Then, while taking slow controlling breaths, I start at my feet and pay attention to all the sensations in each part of my body and then consciously think. For example, I think about how my feet feel inside my socks, how they feel pressed up against the floor and I may even wiggle them. Then move up my legs to my calves then my thighs, etc.
These are by no means the only ways to practice mindfulness, but they’re a decent place to start. Just remember that mindfulness works, but it takes practice. Don’t get discouraged; find something that works for you and try practicing it every day, not just when you’re feeling anxious.
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