The Path to Mindfulness Part 1: Mindful Awareness

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Before I became a clinical psychologist I was a certified yoga teacher, so I have been studying mindfulness for years. The field of psychology has recently begun embracing the concept of mindfulness, and these days it’s common to hear the term being thrown around outside of mental health and wellness contexts. I consider mindfulness to be a crucial tool both inside and outside of therapy, but I find that many people don’t fully understand what it means and how to practice it. This series of blog posts will explain why I find mindfulness to be important, and how you can learn to use it to your benefit.

We use the term mindful in the dictionary sense to mean keeping something in our awareness. Examples would include being mindful of passing cars when crossing the street, or being mindful of stepping over the gap when getting on the subway.

When psychologists use the term mindfulness, we are referring to the tool that can be used to facilitate meta-awareness of the self. Practicing mindfulness meditations or mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral exercises helps us to observe our thoughts and feelings so that we can better manage and understand our needs.

Mindfulness to the Rescue: A Common Scenario

  • Option 1: Give into the feelings

You start wiping your hands on your blouse, which then shows moisture stains, so you begin worrying that everyone will notice, which only makes you sweat more. Thoughts like, “I knew this would happen, oh no, this is awful!” keep racing through your mind, till your mind just goes completely blank. Eventually, you find yourself a ball of nerves, and you stumble through your speech like a robot (or melt into a pile of panic!)

  • Option 2: Recognize the feelings for what they are, deal with them rationally, and keep your blouse intact

You know it’s normal to be nervous even though you’ve prepared for this day, and you recognize the sweaty palms and jittery thoughts as nothing more than markers of moderate anxiety– plus, you even feel kind of proud of yourself for recognizing these pesky speed bumps for what they are, and even having a plan to deal with them! Since you’ve had this mindful awareness of what’s going on, you have the tools to put your plan into action: You take a slow, deep (not gaping!) 3-part breath just like you’ve rehearsed, you focus your mind on the self-statements you’ve pre-crafted and maybe even written on an index card for this very moment (just like you learned in AnxietyTools.com), and trust that even if things don’t go as planned you will most certainly survive, likely even grow stronger, and quite possibly do a very good job!

The second option is obviously preferable, and it also describes how you can benefit from mindfulness at times of panic or anxiety. That moment when you can internally say to yourself “I am sweating because I am nervous” is the moment when you stop the cycle of panic because of your mindful awareness, and then use that insight to help you choose the right tools to deal with whatever you’re feeling.

While this scenario is rather simplistic, it also raises the key point that mindfulness is a practice. When you are standing on stage and frozen with fear is not the first time you want to “try out” mindfulness. To practice mindfulness in times of pressure, we must first be able to practice it in times of calm. That’s why the key word is practice. Mindfulness is a muscle, and it improves with use. By slowly building up your awareness practicing the following techniques during calm times (like sitting at home alone, or even during a boring meeting), you’ll be much better equipped to use mindfulness as a tool in emotionally intense situations.

Mindfulness 101

Step 1: Learn to be mindful of an object

  • Find any object, such as a paperweight from your office, and start by just looking at it. Allow yourself to observe the object, noticing its curves, any hard edges, and blemishes or scratches. Explore the color of the object, and how or if it changes when light hits it.
  • Touch the object. Notice the surface texture, whether it is rough or smooth, and whether it is consistent throughout. Does the object have a hot or cold temperature? Try picking the object up and weighing it in your palm.
  • Depending on the object and where you are, you may want to smell the object. Leather, wood, plants, food, clothing, and myriad everyday objects have a scent all their own. The goal is just to find as many ways as you can to notice and focus your senses on this object.

Step 2: Learn how to put your awareness into words

To illustrate, before the exercise you may have answered the question “What is this?” simply with “A paperweight.” Now, the goal is to answer that question with the observations you made in step 1. You may say things like “This is a round, black, cool-to-the-touch stone paperweight that has no smell. It is somewhat heavy in my palm when I pick it up, and it is big enough to fill my whole hand. It has several faint grey scratches that I can feel if I use the tip of my finger.”

Mindfulness Facilitates Connections and Options

Keep practicing

For more examples of techniques you can use to help build up your mindful awareness, visit AnxietyTools.com or sign up for 14-days of free anxiety tips.

Click here to read Part 2 in Dr Chloe’s Mindfulness Blog Series!

Clinical psychologist | Founder of Carmichael Psychology | TV commentator | Specializes in #anxiety, #dating, #relationships and #goals | www.DrChloe.com/blog

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