4 Ways Practicing Mindfulness Can Improve Your Mental Health

May 18, 2018

Is mindfulness just another trend, or could it actually have the power to change your life?

Unless you’ve been living in a cave with no Internet access for the last decade, you’ve probably heard about the concept of “mindfulness.”

In fact, if you’re anything like me, it’s one more thing on your personal list of things you ought to be doing better at. (Mine also includes eating less sugar, saving more money, staying off social media, and decluttering my bedroom.)

But the idea of mindfulness, while it may have gained cachet in the past few years, is far from new. In fact, its roots go back thousands of years, to Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion. The traditions from which Hinduism arose originated more than 4,000 years ago, and mindfulness has been entwined with it right from the beginning. The Bhagavad Gita’s discussions of yoga, along with the practice of Vedic meditation (popularized by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as Transcendental Meditation, which he famously taught to The Beatles), are all centered around mindfulness.

So, how did mindfulness become so trendy? In 1975, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein – three practitioners of Buddhism, which draws many of its teachings from the same roots as Hinduism – founded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), which is still going strong today, offering meditation retreats, lectures, and trainings. American professor Jon Kabat-Zinn also made a huge leap in bringing mindfulness from the East to the West in the late 1970s, when he founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn pioneered his 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program after studying with Buddhist teachers including Thich Nhat Hanh, and this helped mindfulness gain traction in Western culture.

But what, really, is mindfulness? Does being mindful mean anything more than putting your phone down and smelling the roses for a few minutes each day, before firing up Instagram and posting a picture of those roses for your followers to “like” and comment on? (Hashtag mindfulness, naturally.)

Doctor-turned-entrepreneur Elise Bialylew is the bestselling author of The Happiness Plan and the founder of Mindful in May, a global mindfulness fundraising campaign that teaches thousands of people each year to meditate and raises funds to build clean water projects in the developing world. She says that mindfulness, rather than being just another fad or trend, is a powerful practice that can help us break free from negative thoughts, connect more meaningfully with others, and put us in touch with our inner happiness and gratitude.

Below, Dr. Bialylew explains exactly how mindfulness can transform your life, and shares her top tips for incorporating mindfulness into your routine. Read on to find out why mindfulness deserves to be more than just one more thing on your to-do list – and why it definitely doesn’t mean just putting your phone on airplane mode for 10 minutes every morning and evening.

Get rid of negative thought patterns

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.  – William James

Have you ever had a terrible thought that led to another, even more terrible thought, and you just couldn’t get them out of your mind, as you fixated on worse and worse scenarios, convincing yourself they were probably all true? “So often what gets in the way of our happiness is the tendency of the mind to fall into loops of negative thinking,” says Dr. Bialylew. “This can propel us into a downward spiral and affect our lives in many unhelpful ways. Mindfulness meditation is a form of rigorous training of the mind which helps us to become more familiar with the nature of the mind, and more skillful in noticing when our minds are getting caught up in these unhelpful patterns of thought.

“When we learn to observe this, we can actually choose to disengage and move our attention in ways that support us rather than pull us down. Whether it’s loops of worry, planning into the future, replaying events from the past, or getting caught up in self-judgment  – when we develop the skill of mindfulness and bring this quality of awareness to the working of our own mind, we open up a whole new possibility toward greater happiness. We begin to have the power to be the master rather than the slave of our mind.”

So, what should you do when you wake up at 3AM in a cold sweat, worrying about that shady thing your coworker said about you in front of your boss, or obsessing about whether your partner could be cheating on you? “Next time you catch yourself in a negative thought loop, see it for what it is, the mind caught up in a wheel of thinking, and realize that at any moment you can simply disengage from that pattern of thinking and move your attention to something else,” says Dr.Bialylew. “Try redirecting your attention to the body by engaging in some kind of physical activity. This may short circuit negative thinking and ground you back to the here and now.”

Connect with those around you

The greatest gift you can give someone is your attention. – Jim Rohn

Sometimes it’s healthy to be alone – at least for a while. But ultimately, we humans do better when we’re in community with people we love. “We are social animals that have evolved to be in relationships,” explains Dr. Bialylew. She says that from infancy onward, healthy brain development depends on human interaction, and stresses that loneliness has been pinpointed as a possible risk factor for afflictions ranging from cardiovascular disease to Alzheimer’s. “In order to flourish, we need to feel connected to others. Mindfulness can deepen and enrich our relationships as we bring a quality of present-moment attention to the people around us.”

How do we begin to use mindfulness to connect to others and improve our relationship? Communication is the key, says Dr. Bialylew. “Conversations are a great opportunity to practice being mindful – and mindfulness in turn supports us in experiencing intimacy. Often during conversations we can be caught up in our own concerns and thoughts. When we mindfully communicate, we consciously open our awareness to include a sense of our own body and emotional state, while also making space to be open to the other person.”

She suggests paying close attention to people’s non-verbal communication – “their posture, eye contact, and facial expressions. A large part of communication is transmitted through our non-verbal gestures and signs.” And don’t be afraid of a lull in conversation, either. “Many of us are uncomfortable with silence and so we speak to fill the space. Notice if you have a tendency to fill the space, and don’t be afraid to pause in conversations.”

Bask in inner contentment

Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you . – Lao Tzu

In our culture of more-is-better, it’s easy to focus on what we think we lack. As Dr. Bialylew explains, “In our relentless pursuit of happiness, we can easily get caught running on ‘the hedonic treadmill’, constantly seeking external sources of pleasure. Whether it’s earning more money, finding the ‘perfect’ relationship, or seeking approval, power, or success, we look for happiness in areas that are often transient and outside of our control. Our desires just keep bubbling up as we struggle to fill the gap between our current reality and some imagined better reality ‘over there’.”

But, she says, there’s another way to be happy. “There is another form of wellbeing and happiness, called eudaimonic happiness, first explored by Aristotle several thousand years ago. Eudaimonia comes from two Greek words: eu, meaning ‘good’, and Daimon, which is translated as ‘soul’ or ‘self’. This type of flourishing is not dependent on external circumstances, but rather emerges from an inner sense of wellbeing; it’s created by what we bring to life rather than what we get out of it, and it is completely within our control. Mindfulness training connects us to our inner reservoir of wellbeing, and helps us see the causes of our happiness and suffering. With this growing wisdom and clarity, we make better decisions and start to experience a happiness that transcends our never-ending wanting.”

The next time you’re struggling to find your inner calm and embrace contentment, try focusing on your breathing. “Your breath is intimately connected to your nervous system,” says Dr. Bialylew. “Use it to your advantage when you’re feeling stressed to calm yourself down by slowing your breath and extending your exhalation. This activates the part of the nervous system that calms you down, helping you make better decisions about what is needed when you are under pressure.”

Find your gratitude

Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance. – Eckhart Tolle

“The practice of mindfulness helps us to slow down, even if just for a few moments, and reconnect with what is happening from moment-to-moment,” says Dr. Bialylew. “This slowing down enables us to notice more of what is present both in our environment and within ourselves. As we notice more of what is happening around us and within us, wonder and gratitude can spontaneously emerge. Whether it’s being more present to the taste of a home-cooked meal, or connecting with something as simple and miraculous as the breath , mindfulness can infuse our lives with gratitude and enhance our appreciation of the ordinary things which so often pass by unnoticed.”

We’ve all probably heard about the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal, but what if we feel like we just don’t have the time? That’s when being mindful and grateful becomes one more thing to feel guilty about failing at. “A major obstacle for many of us in bringing mindfulness into our lives is the feeling that we just don’t have the time,” Dr. Bialylew acknowledges. “Although meditation is an important aspect of developing greater mindfulness, there are many ways you can sprinkle mindful moments throughout your day and benefit from the cumulative effect.”

She suggests taking a moment when you first wake up in the morning – before reaching for your phone – to check in with yourself and see how you feel. “Consciously sense how you are feeling: Rested? Tired? Lazy? Energetic? Bring awareness to your body, and more specifically to the feeling of your breath. Before you do anything else (like check your phone!), count ten breaths as they move in and out of the body, and make sure that as you are counting, you actually feel the sensations of the breath in your body, allowing your mind to be free from any concerns about the day to come. If you lose count and get distracted, simply begin again when you notice you’ve lost count. After counting the breaths, drop the counting and bring to mind three things you are grateful for in your life. Get out of bed and start your day with a positive attitude.”

Making changes can be hard; I know I’m a little afraid of what will happen if I let go of my obsessive negative thought patterns and stepping off that “hedonic treadmill” Dr. Bialylew speaks of. But I’ve already started plugging my phone in across the room from my bed, so I can’t grab it first thing upon waking, by force of habit. It’s a small step, but a step nonetheless. For now, it’s enough.

Dr. Elise Bialylew

Featured image via shutterstock.com.

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