Mindfulness is a buzzword being thrown around a lot these days, but do you know what it actually means? Remember when the world suddenly overflowed with everything chia and Matcha. Now we’ve got mindfulness on our radar and we need to get in the know. Fast. Mindfulness is wonderful because it helps manage our thoughts, emotions, and physical responses to stress. Understanding how mindfulness impacts these things can help you engage in a new and effective coping strategy and the plus is that you can do it anytime, anywhere, and it’s free. That means you have no excuses not to learn.

Why We Need Mindfulness 

How to Turn Mindfulness into a Way of LifeIt is important to understand our body’s stress response in order to understand the benefits of mindfulness. When we are feeling emotional stress or anxiety, our body responds. Stress triggers our body’s Fight-Flight-Freeze response and releases stress hormones in our bloodstream. These stress hormones trigger both physical and psychological responses and is a perfect example of the mind-body connection. Some physiological reactions we have are: muscle tension, rapid heart rate, sweating, difficulty breathing, chest pain, headaches, gastrointestinal discomfort, and dizziness.

These days, the majority of our stress is psychological and emotional, but our bodies still react in this physiological manner. These responses are not problematic when our stress response gets triggered infrequently because our bodies have time to recover. However, for people experiencing chronic stress or anxiety, the body can remain in an arousal state ready to fight, flee or freeze and the symptoms can persist. This results in wear and tear on our bodies and minds.

 What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about training our brains to be in the current moment without evaluation or judgment. If you are trying to calm your thoughts but your body’s fire alarm is going off and telling you to be scared, then you are embarking on an uphill battle. Think about a time when your fire alarm went off while cooking. Suddenly, you are freaking out, physically tense and unable to think clearly.

Mindfulness exercises can calm your body’s physical reactivity while also calming your thoughts. Also, we are often in all the shoulda-woulda-couldas of the past or the what-ifs of the future. Training our minds to be in the here and now, is an excellent way to move away from those ineffective thought patterns.

How to Practice Mindfulness

How to Turn Mindfulness into a Way of LifeThere are a couple of ways to practice Mindfulness: using voice and doing tasks. Here’s the difference:

Mindfulness Meditation Audio: This involves a voice guiding you in focusing on your breath or body, likely with calming music in the background. The instructor will guide you to bring your awareness to the present moment non-judgmentally. You can find different audio on YouTube and Spotify by searching “mindful meditation.” Audios vary in length from 3 minutes to over 1 hour. Pick a length that works for your lifestyle and makes it easy to practice.

Mindful Tasks: I love this strategy because it literally takes no extra time out of your life! Pick a task that you do anyways (i.e. showering, tooth brushing, cooking, laundry, commuting, etc.) Use all five senses to describe the moment without evaluation. For example, if you practice in the shower, notice the temperature of the water, what body part you are washing, where the water is hitting your body, the smell of the soap, the sound of the fan, etc.

4 Smart Mindfulness Tips

Mindfulness is a workout for your brain. 

Just like any exercise, you will build this skill with practice. Your mind will likely wander from the present moment. Just notice your thoughts have strayed from the here and now, and gently circle your mind back to the moment. Getting frustrated with yourself will not be very relaxing, so accept your mind wandering as a part of your practice.

Not all mindfulness exercises are created equal. 

Experiment with different audios and tasks and identify the ones you like. Pick the ones that resonate with you and stick to those. You don’t have to like them all!

Practice when you’re calm.

When you first start to practice, do so during times when your body’s fire alarm isn’t going off and you aren’t emotionally elevated.  Keeping your mind in the present moment is difficult, so until you strengthen the skill, it will be hard to engage with during elevated times.

Set a reminder to practice.

Like any new habit, it can be hard to remember to practice.  Set reminders for yourself so you remember to engage.  Also, when we are emotionally elevated, we can’t think clearly.  This makes it hard to remember that we can utilize mindful coping strategies.  Ask a loved one to provide a gentle reminder or create an easily accessible list of coping strategies you can reference during these times.

Dr. Amber Cohen is a Toronto-based Clinical Psychologist. She is an expert on adult mental health and specializes in helping people manage anxiety and depression. 

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