What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of becoming aware of each present moment. Developing this skill can allow you to break free from negative patterns of thinking and thoughts that focus on the past or future.
Have you ever spent hours planning an event over and over again, repeatedly imagining every detail? The mind is often projecting us out into the future with plans and worries and this can create panic and anxiety.
Have you ever found yourself stuck reliving a conversation that didn’t go as you had hoped? Similarly, the mind is prone to ruminate about past events, things that were said or unsaid, regrets, and traumas.
When the mind is stuck in the past or future, you are not present, and you are not mindful.
Using mindfulness techniques can help you to break free of negative and unhelpful thought patterns that typically focus on the past or future. These techniques calm your nervous system and allow you to focus on the present moment.
Three techniques to use for this include: awareness of the breath, nonjudgmental acceptance, and using your senses to observe the moment.
1. Just Breathe
The breath is the most valuable tool every human has at their disposal. It is an automatic process that so many people go through life unaware of, but bringing your awareness to your breath can help you understand yourself better.
Your breath tells you about your current state and health with qualities like its depth and rate. If you are stuck in a string of negative thoughts your heart rate will likely speed up and your breath will become more rapid and shallow.
Creating the habit of becoming aware of your breath throughout your day can help you catch these negative thought patterns more easily, especially when they have become distressing to your nervous system.
Then, by bringing your focus to your breath, you can change the channel of your mind to the here and now.
If you find your mind is still distracted by negative thoughts, you may find it helpful to repeat “I am breathing in,” and “I am breathing out,” silently in your mind for something to focus on.
You can also focus on the sensation of the breath moving in and out of your nostrils, or count as you inhale and exhale. Doing any of these for just a few minutes can calm the mind, body, and your entire nervous system. It brings your mind into the present moment through the breath, which connects you to other life on earth.
As you breathe in and out you trade air with the trees and plants, participating in life on earth in the present moment - the only true reality that exists.
2. No Judgment
An important mindfulness tool is observing non-judgmentally, without evaluating or creating a story. This is an effective technique to stop a runaway train of negative thoughts. The first part of this skill is learning to observe your thoughts.
In the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy model of psychotherapy there is a technique called thought stopping. This is a great place to start when you notice negative thoughts. You tell yourself, “stop,” and observe what is happening in the mind without judgment.
You may observe “My mind is thinking about what I just said to my friend and that is was stupid,” and maybe this thought leads to the thought, “I am not good enough,” “Everyone thinks I am stupid,” or whatever is happening for you in your mind at that moment.
As you observe the string of negative thoughts, you can do your best to interrupt it, stopping the runaway train in its tracks. If the thoughts keep coming back, that’s normal and okay, so do not judge this either.
Simply notice this, and with practice it will likely become easier to stop the string of thoughts.
You can accept the moment for what it is by creating new thoughts like, “Rapid thoughts about the future are present in the mind right now, and that is okay.” There are no judgments here, only observations of what the mind is thinking.
By slowing down the thoughts and objectively observing them, you may also be able to identify misbeliefs or irrational thinking and replace them with more helpful thoughts.
For example, if you notice the mind thinking things like “I am never going to get better at this,” you may be able to stop and replace the thought with something like, “I will keep practicing and work on progressing.” The first thought is not true because you cannot possibly predict the future, but the second thought is true because it expresses your intentions to keep getting better, which is true for you in that moment.
If the negative thoughts are particularly distressing, you may find it helpful to repeat to yourself something like, “This is the way it is right now for me and that is okay. I do not have to believe the thoughts that come from this place of panic because they are likely untrue.”
By doing this, you avoid common cognitive distortions like catastrophizing, believing you can read other people’s minds, or that you can tell the future. Through this, you allow the mind to become mindful of what it is doing in the present moment rather than participating in generating more thoughts in the same downward spiraling direction.
3. What You See Is What You Get
One of the most effective techniques that I teach to individuals who deal with anxiety, depression, or have experienced trauma is using your senses to come into the here and now.
This tool distracts the mind from strings of negative thoughts and uses the whole body’s perception to ground into the present moment.
Use each sense to objectively describe what is present.
Your sense of sight allows you to describe what you see, including colors and shapes. You sense of smell allows you to describe what you smell without letting the mind go into stories about the past or future - you just objectively describe the smells without describing what it reminds you of.
Your senses of hearing, touch, and taste also allow you to describe what you are experiencing through your senses. Do this with as much detail as possible. You may find it helpful to say it aloud.
The technique is often taught using the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method. You describe five things you see, four things you hear, three things you feel or can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
By working through the senses and also counting down you are giving the mind a lot of information to focus on that exists only in this present moment. This technique does a great job of shattering the string of negative thoughts and can be used whenever you notice you feel stuck in negative or otherwise unhelpful thinking patterns.
Managing the Mind Through Mindfulness
To recap, three mindfulness techniques that are always available to you are:
- Using the breath to come into present moment awareness
- Using the mind to non-judgmentally observe itself
- Using the senses to ground into your current reality.
It is important to remember that the aim of mindfulness is not necessarily to stop negative thoughts altogether.
To some degree, these thoughts are inevitable.
Instead, you can become aware of them and over time you will become more familiar with the habit patterns of your mind. This awareness or mindfulness will help you to break free from those strings of negative thoughts more often, more quickly and more effectively.
You learn to manage your mind with awareness, breath, acceptance, and grounding into presence.