Mindfulness - The Therapeutic Effects of The Present

Uncategorized May 20, 2024

I am sitting in a cafe working while my daughter attends an art class down the street. As I log onto my website's portal in order to work on my blog, I get a notification about the monthly charge being due – immediate derailment of thoughts in full swing! I start thinking about finances, about other things that need to be paid, and family business that I need to attend to. I need to call oral surgeons to find a good place for my son's wisdom teeth to be pulled, and I need to make a follow up appointment for my other son who just had his appendix out. As my mom always says, it's never dull! One distraction leads to another, and I quickly go down the rabbit hole of fears and worries. 

The bill notification sparked a million other thoughts, and it prompted me to look at my analytics page–like is this website even getting any visitors anyway? Let me Google how many visitors I need in order to make some money. Now let me Google how I can get those visitors. What else can I do to make money? How can I give my business a boost? My mind jumps to a million places in the span of five minutes. I am feeling desperate and anxious. 

Then I remember the task at hand, which is to write the first of ten posts for my Warrior Ways series. Let me just do that. As I pull the title from my last post which introduces all ten topics, and paste it into the subject line here, I am immediately transported into the world of mindfulness. Ah–this is what I need: to be present. I need to focus on what is happening right now. I need to clear my mind of all that other white noise, more commonly known as fears and worries. I do that by bringing myself, my overactive mind included, right back to the here and now. I say to myself:

Right now, I am safe.

Right now, I am happy.

Right now, I am loved. 

What does it mean to be mindful? 

  • Mindfulness is a cognitive skill allowing you to focus your awareness and attention on your current surroundings and the present moment.
  • Mindfulness is being able to calmly acknowledge and accept your thoughts and emotions without judgment, and without getting swept up by them.

If I am being mindful, my thoughts should stay in the present moment. If I find myself thinking about something that happened in the past or worrying about something that might or might not happen in the future, I should acknowledge that my mind wandered, and bring it back to the present moment without judgment. In my case, I might start thinking about bills and finances. Once I notice that I am thinking about that, I will give myself permission to let that thought go, and bring my attention back to my current surroundings. In order to do that, there are a number of techniques I can use. 

  • My five senses:  Using my senses, I can transport myself back to the present. Sight – what do I see in front of me? Sound – what sounds do I hear close by? What sounds are more off in the distance? Taste – what taste do I have in my mouth? How does my coffee taste? Touch–how do the computer keys feel as I type? What does the cup feel like when I lift it to take a sip? Smell–what smells are in the air?
  • Body scan: A body scan is one of many different quick meditation techniques that I can do to bring myself back to the here and now. The body scan, particularly, is a great way to bring me back inside my physical body when my mind has drifted away. You can do it wherever you are and whatever position you are in, but if you are able to sit comfortably with your eyes closed, that would be ideal. Start from the top of your body, and name each body part as you scan down towards your feet. As you go, give yourself permission to relax each body part, and take inventory of how you are feeling. I have a recorded version of this and many other quick mindfulness exercises available upon request.
  • Breathing: Concentrating on your breath is a great way to rein in the mind. You can use a breathing technique such as the box technique, or you can just inhale and exhale at your own pace, noticing how it affects your body as the air goes in and out. Doing this for just two to three minutes here and there throughout the day will really help you reduce stress and anxiety.

Why is practicing mindfulness important?

We can all agree that physical activity, or exercise, is important for maintaining good physical health for our bodies. What about our brains? How can we be sure to keep our brains in shape, especially with technology doing its best to not only think for us, but in an effort to keep us entertained, sending a consistent barrage of stimuli making it almost impossible to maintain focus for longer than a thirty second reel or TikTok video (no hate to either). The truth is, doing some of the short and simple mindfulness exercises that I mentioned above is equivalent to doing curls for your biceps. You don’t just expect your arms to be strong or your muscles to grow without putting in the work. The same is true for our brains. 

If you read the introduction to this series, the suggested exercise was to keep track of your recurring thoughts. We all have a playlist of thoughts that is in constant heavy rotation. These are thoughts that we have accumulated over the course of our lives based on our experiences, what other people tell us, our worries and fears, and our egos trying to keep us small and safe. These are also commonly referred to as limiting beliefs, intrusive thoughts, or imposter syndrome. As you can tell by the names, they are generally not uplifting, but they are loud and unrelenting. 

The easy thing to do is nothing. If you don’t lift weights, you won’t get stronger. Easy. If you don’t do exercises with your brain, your heavy rotation playlist will keep on playing. Generally, that playlist consists of things like, “I don’t belong here,” “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not smart enough,” or quite simply, “I am not enough.” Think of the neural pathways between your experiences and these thoughts as trenches.The trenches of those thoughts have been dug so deeply that it really takes effort to change them. Imagine that you are at the beach, and there are some trenches that have been dug in the sand close to the shore. As the wave comes in, the water will automatically fill those trenches up. Just like when you are triggered by an uncomfortable situation, such as a presentation or job interview, the thoughts flow to the trenches in your brain that have already been dug–“I can’t do this.” or “I am not enough.” It’s automatic, and it takes no effort. The trenches are already there.

The good news is that you CAN dig new trenches. It takes a little bit of time, and it takes some work. At the beach you need to dig trenches as well as fill in the old ones. The water will keep going into those old trenches until they have fully been replaced with new ones. Our brains work the same way. The wave is the trigger, so let’s say you have the opportunity to give a speech at a conference. The wave comes in and the water flows to the old trenches, “I’m not a very good speaker. What if they don’t like me? I don’t even belong in this space.” Those negative thoughts might cause you to pass up on the opportunity, in which case your ego completed its job of keeping you small and safe. 

How about starting to dig those new trenches instead? Every time the wave comes in, or everytime we feel triggered, let’s redirect our thoughts to the new trenches. Those trenches might remind you of a time when you felt very confident, or when you accomplished something that surprised you. You might say, “I am excited for the opportunity to grow!” or “I can do this!” Those thoughts are motivating, and although you will still be nervous, you will go for it! In doing this, you can actually change the neural pathways in your brain. like physically, your brain changes! Isn’t that wild?

How does all of that relate to mindfulness and exercising the brain? It is twofold.

  1. Mindfulness IS the exercise that gives you the strength to build those new trenches. Practicing short mindfulness exercises throughout the day will make it easier to reign your thoughts in, or change from a positive to a negative thought cycle. You first have to be aware of your thoughts in order to change them, and you have to have the ability to redirect them. You CAN take charge of your thoughts instead of allowing them to do the driving. 
  2. All of that time spent, either on mindfulness exercises, on digging new trenches, or just focusing on being in the moment, is time taken away from the negative thought cycle. If you are focusing on breathing, or taking in the scenery on your walk, you are NOT stressing about any negative things or pressures that are going on in your life. Staying in a positive thought cycle is crucial to good brain health. 

Fun Facts about the science of staying in a positive thought cycle:

  • When you think happy thoughts, your brain produces serotonin which helps you feel calm and focused,
  • Positive thoughts activate the prefrontal cortex which promotes creative thinking and problem solving.

More positive effects of a regular mindfulness/meditation practice:

  • Decreases levels of stress and anxiety
  • Boosts immunity 
  • Improved mental faculties including protection from declines due to aging
  • Improved heart health
  • Improved confidence
  • Better sleep

Quite simply, the more you are hyper-focused on what is happening now, the less you are stuck worrying about what happened in the past and fearing what might or might not happen in the future. Now, everything is fine. What a wonderful gift to give yourself and your loved ones around you - to be fully present in your body and enjoying your surroundings. 

We don’t meditate to get better at meditating, we meditate to get better at life. We meditate to exercise that muscle in our brains that allows us to take back control of our minds and to drown out the white noise. We meditate so that we don’t get triggered, and even if we do, we can connect with that inner peace because we have been training for this moment and react differently. 

Mindfulness exercises:

  • Do a short breathing technique, meditation, or sensory check-in for just a couple of minutes, multiple times throughout the day.
  • Journal - Write down a list of your negative heavy rotation thoughts, and create a positive replacement phrase for each one. That way you are prepared with the tools you need to start digging the new trenches. Each time the old playlist comes on, notice it, stop yourself mid-thought, and plug in the new, positive replacement phrase.
  • Take up a hobby or a project that requires full concentration–gardening, pottery, dance classes, painting, or coloring (feel free to print out the image on this page - it is designed for coloring!). Allow yourself to focus fully on the task at hand. 
  • Take inventory of how you are feeling throughout the day. Notice when you are truly content, and write down what you are doing in those moments. This can help you find your passion and live purposely. 

If you missed the introduction to this series, find it here.

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