Making the time for Mindfulness
It’s easy to become distracted on a daily basis; whether due to multi-tasking, keeping up with a full schedule, or running through thoughts and lists in your head. There can be a tendency to reflect on past events, interactions and the desire to plan ahead and predict future ones.
It can be difficult to calm the mind and often times we don’t necessarily want to; We’re happy allowing every thought to move through our heads. But how would it feel to stop? To only pay attention to this present moment, and not on thoughts about the future or the past?
This switch in attention can be powerful, often alleviating anxieties. Even the simple practice of slowing the breath and concentrating on a long exhale can calm the nervous system.
Chronic worry can be very taxing on the body. It creates physical stress, but can also lead to internal mental turmoil. Attention shifting practices such as mindfulness can help alleviate that stress.
What is Mindfulness?
Ultimately, mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention1 while accepting the present moment non-judgmentally.2 The act of being mindful encourages a sense of curiosity and openness toward all aspects of that moment.3,4
Our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations are all connected1. Our actions are typically thought or emotionally driven. By harnessing the attention, we can slow those racing thoughts and use the information gained in that moment to produce a more effective response or action.
Imagine if you could hit a pause button at will and stop and reflect on a moment? What if you could stop and assess what you’re feeling, how your body is reacting; re-process something that someone has just said? Ideally, you would be more informed, comfortable and your reaction might be different. Practicing mindfulness does exactly that. It has been shown to increase resilience to stress and reduce the reactivity to acute stressors.4
Mindfulness, like yoga, is a practice and can be uncomfortable if you’re used to accepting every thought and feeling that arises. The goal is to allow yourself to be calm, to accept a moment and not judge it. Having control over your attention in this way can lead to improved emotional regulation and self-awareness.1 It may also help improve anxious habits,4 for example, nail biting, jaw clenching and the internal spiraling of worried thoughts.
5 Ways to practice mindfulness
1) Mindful Attention
Sit still and pay attention to your senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and bodily sensations). Focus on each of these without any judgment. This type of attention can be used in a self-body scan, sitting or lying down, allowing your muscles to relax.
There are many audio files and apps that can guide you through a “body scan”, otherwise, use your own attention at your own pace: Start with a few mindful breaths then bring the attention to your feet and toes. Slowly work one body part at a time, up the legs, to the pelvis and hips, the belly, continuing up to the jaw, face and head. As your attention moves slowly from one part to the next, focus on any sensations you notice. Locate any tension and imagine it melting away. End by focusing on a few closing breaths.
2) Mindful Breathing
Your breath is always with you. Although the brain naturally regulates breathing, you can take control over it anytime, changing its pace and depth.
Allow yourself normal breathing, just paying attention to each breath in and out. Notice any sensations. Feel the belly rise and fall as air flows in and out through the nose. You can even place your hand on your belly and feel its movement with each breath. If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, elongate your exhales to slow down the nervous system. Anxiety can lead to shallow and rapid breathing, but a balance can be regained by practicing control.
3) Mindful Walking
This type of mindfulness practice is different from the first two in that we are now combining relaxation and active movement. Mindful walking incorporates the mindful attention to our senses with movement and grounding through the feet. There’s something to be said for having your feet literally on the ground. Weather permitting; this exercise can be accentuated by walking barefoot through the grass.
Walk through your backyard, a park, or other green space. If you’re out of the city, choose a quiet road, a wooded area; anywhere where your feet are on the earth. Walk slowly, control your attention and be present. Breathe in some fresh air!
The intensity of movement is completely up to you. Tai Chi and Yoga are both great examples of mindful movement; or couple your mindfulness with a jog (headphones off, earbuds out!)
4) Mindful Eating
Most of us eat several times per day, which makes this a great time to practice mindfulness, as you can do it with each meal and snack. Often we are distracted during meals, whether with television, phones, or work. Mindful eating forces us to slow down, and thus, can help prevent indigestion, improve weight management (by preventing over-eating) and be more connected with what we put into our bodies.
Simply give your food your full attention. Look at it, smell it, hold it in your mouth and enjoy its flavors and textures. Put your utensils down in between bites chewing each bite about 30 times before swallowing. Chew slowly, taking your time to enjoy each mouthful.
5) Mindful Listening
How often do you get wrapped up in your own thoughts during a conversation? Are you ever itching to get something out while someone else is talking? Or perhaps your mind begins to wander and you’ve disconnected from the conversation.
Mindful listening requires your full attention on the person you’re conversing with. When someone is speaking to you, try to pay attention and not interrupt until they have completely finished speaking. Notice if your mind starts to wander, be aware of it and bring your attention back to listening. After the other person has stopped speaking, take a breath before you respond.
1. Tabac, N.T., Horan, W.P., Green, M.F. Mindfulness in schizophrenia: Associations with self-reported motivation, emotion regulation, dysfunctional attitudes, and negative symptoms. Schizophr Res. 2015;168(1-2):537-42
2. Siegling, A.B. And Petrides, K.V. Zeroing in on mindfulness facets: similarities, validity, and dimensionality across three independent measures. PLoS One. 2016;11(4):e0153073
3. Bawa, F.L., Mercer, S.W., Atherton, R.J., et al. Does mindfulness improve outcomes in patients with chronic pain? Systemic review and meta-analysis. Br J Gen Pract. 2015;65(635):e387-400
4. Taren, A.A., Gianaros, P.J., Greco, C.M., et al. Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized control trial. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015;10(12):1758-68
Dr. Sarah King is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor, graduating from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in 2014. Prior to completing her medical studies, she attended Nipissing University where she received her Honors Bachelor of Science in Biology. Sarah has a passion for women’s health and is a birth doula in Durham and Toronto Region. She treats a wide variety of health conditions including menstrual disorders and hormone balancing, fertility, prenatal care, digestive concerns, skincare and mental health/anxiety. Outside the office Sarah is an avid runner with a love of the GTA’s best forest trails. She also continues to improve her yoga practice and teaches breath work as part of stress management counselling to her patients.