Have you ever pulled into the parking lot at work and realized you have no recollection of getting there? Eaten a whole meal before you noticed that you had not even stopped to taste the food? In this day and age of multitasking, people are finding themselves living on auto-pilot, rather than experiencing all life has to offer. The practice of mindfulness found its way into American culture as a response to our need to slow down and bring ourselves back to the present.
While mindfulness has been practiced in far eastern cultures for generations, recent studies are demonstrating that mindfulness, when practiced regularly, may have a positive effect on the management of mental health conditions as well.
While living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was able to take part in an 8-session class, "Falling Awake: Mindfulness for Depression and Anxiety", which was taught by Lynn Sipher, LMSW, LMFT, ACSW, a specialist in mindfulness based psychotherapy.
Lynn explains the powerful impact of mindfulness as follows:
The effects of mindfulness practice on mental health conditions including depression, addiction, and anxiety, according to research that began late 1970's, shows many positive effects. Studies have shown, for example, that for people who deal with recurrent depressive episodes, taking an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) class prevents them from relapsing into another depressive episode as effectively as taking medication would. Other research demonstrates that mindfulness changes the way people relate to anxiety-based conditions, creating more ability to manage symptoms and live with these conditions so that they are not as overwhelming. Notice that mindfulness does not help us get rid of mental health conditions. Rather, it helps us live with them differently, so they have a reduced effect on our lives.
When we live with a mental health condition, it can feel like a giant blob surrounding and sometimes suffocating us. Many mental health conditions seem to insist we pay more attention to them than to the actuality of our lives in the present tense. As we practice noticing this moment and focusing on what is happening right now, our mental health conditions become more like passengers on the bus of life we are driving. Sure, they can get unruly. By practice mindfulness, however, we learn to relate to them differently. We are more accepting of these "passengers." We can create more space from them, recognizing they do not define us. In the mean time, we keep driving the bus and paying attention what we are noticing on the drive and to where we want to go.
Mindfulness practice invites us to be non-judgmental, patient, and compassionate as we simply pay attention to the present moment. It invites us to slow down and focus. It is a secular, portable practice. Paying attention to each moment of our life as it unfolds invites a sense of balance and well-being.
Several studies have shown that mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is effective in treating anxiety, as well as, relapses in depression. That leads us to the question, why isn't everyone taking advantage of the benefits of mindfulness? Dr. Zindel Segal, one of the founders of MBCT speaks to that in his Tedx talk at the University of Toronto Scarborough, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=6&v=1A4w3W94ygA), where he discusses the science behind the book, The Mindful Way Through Depression, which he co-authored with Mark Williams, John Teasdale and Jon Kabat-Zinn, all considered authorities in the study of mindfulness and the treatment of mood disorders.
The fact of the matter is that mindfulness, while effective, is not a skill that comes naturally. If you want to focus all of your attention on what is happening in the present moment, you must disable the brain's natural tendency to fly in multiple directions at once. When looked at it in its simplest form, mindfulness is truly exercise for the mind, which takes both time and commitment.
As we kick off 2018 many of us are hoping to improve ourselves for the new year. Resolutions are made. We vow to eat better and exercise our bodies more often. We purchase gym memberships and the equipment we need. We even set our alarms an hour earlier to go exercise before work. While all of that is important and necessary to our wellbeing, it can be argued that exercising the mind is of equal, if not greater, importance.
When you hear that alarm go off and are getting ready to go to the gym in the morning, take a few minutes to pause for some deep breathing and mindfulness practice. You will find, by committing yourself to the process, you can improve both your body and your mind in 2018.
Here's to a new year of health and happiness for us all.
Written by: Nikki Rashes, with assistance from Lynn Sipher, LMSW, LMFT, ACSW