The term “mindfulness” gets thrown around a lot these days. Often in my work with clients, when I mention mindfulness, there is a knee-jerk negative response because the assumption is that it just means a lot of sitting still and meditating, which is an intimidating starting point for many people. The fact is, meditation is just one way to become more mindful- there are so many simple mindfulness practices that we can incorporate into our days. Mindfulness is about being present, and being able to acknowledge and accept our feelings rather than reacting to them. It is about being at peace in the present moment, and being able to notice our thoughts and keep our minds in the here and now. Who wouldn’t want to feel that way? Not to mention the research showing that practicing mindfulness can lower stress and anxiety, improve focus, strengthen the immune system, and the list of benefits goes on (check out http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition to learn more!).
Here are five easy practices that I often suggest in individual therapy or teach during group therapy, which can all be a quick addition to our daily routines.
Practice: Mindful breathing
If we’re feeling triggered, taking a few deep breaths in a slow and mindful manner can keep our body calm and counter our brain’s attempts to get us physically keyed up for fight or flight. Physically, deep breathing gives us more oxygen and slows our heart rate down so that we can feel more comfortable. It also helps clear our mind when our thoughts are cluttered or stuck on something negative, by drawing our attention to something physical and soothing.
The breathing practice I have found most helpful is 4–7–8 breathing. This means taking a deep breath in through your nose for a count of four, holding the breath in for a count of seven, and slowing releasing the breath as if you are blowing through a straw for a count of eight. This is supposed to be relaxing and comforting- so it’s okay to speed up or slow down the counting as needed, just keep the ratio. To enhance a feeling of calmness, place one hand on your chest and one hand on the belly and feel the rise and fall with each breath; slight pressure on the chest can help us relax even more (there’s a slight release of oxytocin, so in your brain it is a little like getting a hug and being soothed). The counting helps us focus on the breath and slow it down.
Practice: Checking in
When we aren’t feeling well, we take our temperature to gauge how sick we are, and to determine what care we need- whether we need to take medicine, stay home from work to rest, and allow ourselves time to recover. While we are used to checking in with our bodies and giving ourselves medical care, we often forget to check in emotionally and give ourselves self-care. I often ask clients to use a rating scale to gauge to gauge how much of a target feeling they are experiencing. We might rank anger, anxiety, or sadness on a scale from 0 to 10. We talk about what it feels like to be in the comfortable 0–3 range, what thoughts and feelings distinguish the slightly elevated 4–7 range, and what it feels like (and what some consequences might be) at the top in the overwhelming 8–10 range. If we check in and rate how we’re feeling a couple times a day, we give ourselves the chance to notice when we feel good, and also notice when we are slightly elevated and need to use some coping skills before we get overwhelmed. Triggers are less likely to get us all the way up to a 10 and result in undesired consequences if we can check in and do more to keep ourselves in the comfortable range of our scale on a regular basis.
Set a reminder on your phone that says “How are you feeling?” or start a practice of keeping a journal each day (there are actually a lot of apps now too for journaling or tracking mood!). Checking in fosters greater self-awareness and promotes better self-care.
Practice: Take a break
To teach this practice in group therapy I hold up a cup of water and say that the cup is half-full, but this is not a lesson on optimism. If I hold the cup for a minute, I can handle holding a half-filled cup of water. But over time, my arm might start to shake a little bit. Eventually, there is going to be a breaking point where either my arm buckles and I drop the cup or I purposely set it down to rest my arm. In the long run, I’m in better shape to pick it back up again if I chose to set it down rather than getting to the point where my arm buckled, which could have hurt my arm and made a mess.
The previous practice of checking in tells us how our arm is feeling. Taking a break is the important practice of setting the cup down before our arm gives out. This means deciding to be done with work at a certain time at night because rest our family time is more important (and it restores us, which allows us to be more productive tomorrow), choosing something relaxing to do for yourself on a regular basis like taking a bubble bath or walking in a park, or occasionally saying no to a social engagement when we’re running on empty so that we can have a night in to catch up on Netflix. This might mean being mindful of when we’re getting to angry and taking a break from a conversation until we’re calm, or being mindful when we’re grumpy due to hunger and making sure to pause our work to eat a snack. Putting down the cup feels good and helps you gather the strength you need to meet the challenges you’re facing. It’s not avoiding; it’s recharging.
Practice: Peaceful place meditation
This is a great beginner meditation to try out. Just as a trigger can automatically elicit negative feelings (saying the word “traffic” can immediately make us feel tense), a place that we love can automatically arouse positive feelings (“beach” can make us feel happy or calm). Ideally, you can pick a peaceful place for this meditation based on somewhere you have been and enjoy going, a place that brings back positive memories and feelings of peace, calm, and happiness. In some circumstances, it might be hard to identify a place that has felt safe or peaceful; in this case, an imaginary place works fine too.
Start with a few cues to relax the body: close your eyes, relax your muscles, and take a few deep breaths. Allow your mind to quiet down, and think of a message that will tell your brain that it is time to relax, such as “I’m peaceful now.” Next, picture yourself in your peaceful place. Visit with all of your senses. Look to your left and right, look above and below you. If you’re outside, notice the color of the sky and look to see if there are clouds or sunshine. Listen for the sound of the breeze, the water, birds singing, or people talking in the distance. Feel the ground beneath you, feel the sun on your skin, feel the breeze blowing gently. Breathe in — if you’re at the beach, imagine the taste of the salty ocean air. Imagine the scents around you and let these sensations bring you more fully into being present in that place. Stay there and relax, knowing that in this moment, you are safe and peaceful. If other thoughts intrude, just notice them and allow them to pass; picture them on a cloud that passes by. See if you can stay there for several minutes before opening your eyes again. It might take practice to do this meditation for longer amounts of time. If you have a physical memento from the peaceful place you like to meditate about, it can help to hold it or look at it to help bring your mind to the place.
Peaceful place can be great practice to do as a break during your day or when you are going to sleep.
Practice: Noticing positives
Unfortunately, our brains are programmed to be on lookout for threats, and our negative experiences can stick with us much more than the positive ones. It is normal that after a long day at work, we might remember the rude comment our coworker made more than we remember the dozens of neutral interactions we had or the compliment someone else gave us.
When we think back to a negative event that happened recently, we can usually describe it vividly, and it is accompanied by feelings like anger or shame. The memory hurts. But if we think back to something positive that happened recently, is the memory as vivid? Did we let it sink in to our sense of self as much as we did with a negative experience? Noticing positives requires mindful attention to good experiences, and practicing this on a daily basis can help train our brain to notice more positive facts about our day, turn them into positive experiences, and make us feel better over time.
To start, practice noticing small positives throughout the day. Keep a running list in a journal or as a note on your phone, and challenge yourself to write down 3 to 5 positives per day along. Let the feelings linger for a minute as you write them down. It feels good to look at the list growing and see all the good things building up.
Beyond just noting what was positive, describe it: What feelings did you have when it happened? How did you feel physically? What did you think to yourself or about yourself? Did you smile? Wish for yourself the good feelings, the sense of happiness or accomplishment, the rewards or benefits, that you might wish for a friend when something positive happens for them. For someone who has difficulty acknowledging positives, start with small things: notice if someone smiled at you, notice that the air feels nice today as you walk outside, notice the good sensations of taking a nice deep breath. The positives are always there, even if a dark mood makes them difficult to see; the more mindful we are of them, the brighter things start to look.