What is Mindfulness and How Can You Practice It?
Mindfulness and meditation are some of the fastest-growing health trends in the country. Don’t let its newfound popularity fool you–mindfulness is much more than a fad that will fade. Instead, mindfulness is a powerful tool that can improve your mental health, relationships, and more.
Scientists have shown that increased mindfulness can improve working memory, reduce stress, increase control over emotions, and improve cognition. It’s no wonder why seemingly everyone is trying to be more mindful.
But what exactly is mindfulness? And once you define it, how do you practice it consistently? Getting the answers to these questions and more can be the key to living a happier life for many people. That’s why we sat down with award-winning therapist Carl Nassar, Ph.D., LPC, CIIPTS.
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Nassar is a licensed counselor who specializes in relationship issues. He is also the founder of Heart Centered Counseling, a part of the LifeStance Health family.
What is Mindfulness?
The American Psychological Association defines mindfulness as a state of awareness in which a person is in-the-moment and does not judge what they observe. It is a state of being, rather than a personality trait or a verb. Nassar said that the definition of mindfulness can be broader than that.
“I think many people would define mindfulness in many different ways,” Nassar explained. “But I would describe mindfulness as being able to slow down your rhythm so that you are not operating at a rhythm of anxiety or rhythm of busy-ness.”
By slowing your rhythm down, you’re able to observe and make choices about your surroundings. This allows you to be in control of your emotions, not the other way around. While mindfulness can affect all feelings, Nassar used anger as one example of mindfulness in action.
“You get angry and the anger takes over, and you’re yelling at someone versus you get angry and you become aware and mindful of that you’re angry,” Nassar explained. “Then you’re able to make a choice about how you want to communicate that anger or what you want to do with that anger. And so, the power of mindfulness is it allows you, all of the sudden, to know that you are choosing how you’re responding to what’s coming up, versus being taken over by what’s coming up.”
Mindfulness to Ease Anxiety
Whether you live with an anxiety disorder or not, it’s likely that you experience worries or anxieties in your everyday life. By slowing your rhythm, mindfulness combats anxiety and stress.
Nassar explained that anxiety is often what gets people into “trouble.” When people are living in the rhythm of anxiety, they are more likely to say or do something that causes harm. This “trouble” could mean legal problems, issues in relationships, or other types of regrets. That’s because anxiety tries to rush people through their days.
“Our anxiety moves us to premature closure,” Nassar elaborated. “Our anxiety says, ‘Just get it done and out of the way ‘cause I got the next thing you gotta do.’ Anxiety is really about getting done a lot of things, and when you get it done you can relax. But, of course, you never really get it all done, so that doesn’t work. Anxiety pushes us in that way.”
For example, a parent may be having a very busy day and feel like they will never get it all done. When their child asks for help, the parent looks for the quickest way to meet that need and move on. This is the rhythm of anxiety. However, when in a state of mindfulness, that same parent might take the time to help the child and connect to them in that moment.
“The reward of taking that moment is so much richer than just hurrying to get it done,” Nassar said. “And it shifts the very way in which we relate to ourselves, and others, and the world around us.”
How to Be More Mindful
Being mindful is easier said than done. “I mean, the things to do to become more mindful are easy,” Nassar said. “Learning to practice them is much, much harder.”
The techniques to start practicing mindfulness can be rather simple. “Any time you’re transitioning from one activity to another, just pause,” Nassar suggested. “If you can close your eyes, close your eyes. And just count to four repeatedly–count to four three times really slowly, and then transition. All of the sudden you’ll feel like you’re not just rushing to the next thing, but you’re grounding yourself in a space where you’re ready for what’s next.”
While the techniques of mindfulness are simple, the hard work comes when you make it a habit. “So, mindfulness is, in part, knowing what to do, like counting to four,” Nassar elaborated. “But it’s equally about what facilitates the change to becoming more mindful. And that’s the real richness of the work in becoming more mindful. It’s being able to stay motivated to practice in the midst of the anxiety that says, “Don’t you dare do that. Get on to the next thing ‘cause you’re behind!’”
Therapy is one tool that can help you maintain this habit and reap the benefits of mindfulness.
Therapy and Mindfulness
How exactly does therapy lead to mindfulness? Well, therapy is mindful. It forces you to slow your rhythm, even if only for an hour.
“In a funny way, the very act of going to therapy is an act of becoming more mindful,” Nassar explained. “When you go into a therapy session, the whole idea is ‘let’s slow you down, and let’s let you get in touch with all the things that you were too busy to feel before.’”
With time, you get used to the rhythm of mindfulness that is inherent in therapy. As you work through therapy, you uncover just how difficult it is to live in the rhythm of anxiety. This acts as a motivator that pushes you to become more mindful in your daily life.
“Therapy gets us in touch with the heartbreak that comes from living without being mindful,” Nassar concluded.