Updated: Mar 8, 2020
If you struggle with intense emotions, high anxiety, or feelings of being overwhelmed, mindfulness can be a wonderful tool to help you feel more grounded and calmer. Mindfulness has two primary aspects: accepting your current emotional state without judgment, and focusing on your sensory experience.
Let's look at several strategies for practicing mindfulness:
Practice deep breathing: I covered deep breathing in the article about panic attacks but it is worth reviewing it again.
To begin, close your eyes or stare out the window. Breathe slowly through your nose for three seconds, hold your breath for three seconds, and then slowly exhale through your mouth for three seconds.
Place your hand on your stomach, it should rise with each breath - that is how you know you are breathing from deep in your lungs.
If thoughts pop in your mind while you are breathing, don't push them away, just acknowledge them and gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Focus on your senses - the feeling of the air in your lungs, the sounds in the room, the temperature, the feeling of the chair beneath you.
Set a timer on your phone and do this for two minutes. Practice three times a day.
Mindful eating: Many people eat while distracting themselves, be it in front of the TV, with a screen or tablet in their hand, or just through their racing thoughts about the impending day. Mindful eating, while it sounds simple, is fairly difficult at first because the pull to remain distracted is strong. Start with breakfast and aim for eating mindfully once per week, adding more days as you become more comfortable with it.
Sit at the kitchen table for your breakfast and ensure that there are no distractions in front of you. Take a moment to look at your food, notice the colour and texture, take in the aroma, sense the warmth or cold of the meal. Take a bite and put your utensil down. Chew slowly, noticing how the food tastes, smells and feels. If thoughts begin to intrude, don't push them away, just gently bring your attention back to your meal. After each bite, set down the utensil and continue to appreciate your meal.
Mindful walking: Most people when they walk distract themselves with their music or they are lost contemplating the past or worrying about the future. Mindful walking means you are attending to your surroundings and conscious of yourself walking and experiencing the world.
Start by noticing the sound your feet make on the sidewalk, try counting your steps to twenty, and then starting again from one. Pay attention to the colours on your route - pick a colour (e.g. green or purple) and try to find as many objects meeting this description. Feel the air or the cold on your skin, don't judge it, just notice it. Notice how when you don't judge the weather, your emotional reaction diminishes. Listen to the sounds around you, car horns, kids laughing, dogs barking, people talking. If you find your mind wandering to something you have to do that day, gently bring your attention back to your walking and say to yourself, "Right now, I am walking..."
Sitting with emotions: When you are feeling anxious or upset, it is natural to want to feel better and "get rid of" the emotion. Unfortunately, we don't have much control over our emotional state and a better strategy is to accept how you are feeling and sit with it. For example, if you find that you are tense and you are trying to distract yourself by watching TV, try turning it off, take some deep breaths and tell yourself that it is OK that you feel this way, that it is normal to feel stressed some times and acknowledge that you have a lot going on in your life. Continue to deep breathe, soothe yourself internally or out loud (e.g. Everything is OK, I will be fine). You could then go outside for a walk, take a bath, have some tea or talk to a friend or family member. The goal is not to distract yourself or avoid feeling this way, but rather, to take care of yourself through self-care and self-compassion.
Here is my favorite book about mindfulness.