What is mindfulness?
Most of us would have heard of the term ‘mindfulness’, but a significant number of people may not fully understand how one can practice this. It is actually simpler than we think it is. Mindfulness may be defined as the practice of being completely aware of whatever is happening in the current moment, without judgement. To be mindful, all you have to do is to slow down, focus on a single task, and notice what is happening mentally and physically.
While there are various techniques that you can practice, such as ‘mindful breathing’ and doing a ‘body scan’, you can begin slow by simply pausing and noticing your surroundings or your bodily sensations (choose just one- remember, focus on a single task). I do this myself by looking out of the window for one or two minutes from time to time, and select something to focus on. I may admire the abstract shape of a cloud or examine the colours of the leaves on the trees outside. Thoughts may emerge in my mind while doing so. I pay attention to these thoughts, without judging whether there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to think or feel them.
What happens when you are not mindful?
A person who is not mindful may respond to situations by engaging in mindlessness. When being mindless, the person is in the ‘autopilot’ mode. The person is not capable of being fully aware of what is happening, and behaves without thinking through carefully.
How many of us remember what we have eaten for lunch two days ago? Chances are, most of us would not because we tend to eat mindlessly these days. We were probably browsing the social media on our phones, while not being fully aware of what we are feeding into our mouth and enjoying the taste of the food- causing us to miss out on potentially one of our most enjoyable time of the day.
Even worse, mindlessness can cause us to make the same mistake again and again. I have seen alcoholics who continue to be trapped in the cycle of addiction by turning to alcohol each time they are stressed because they simply give in to the urge. How many of us continue to use the same behaviour in response to similar situations and regretting it every time? For example, you may continue nagging at your children or partners even though the previous nagging episodes did not lead to positive outcomes. The habit of over-eating during mealtimes may also be attributed to mindlessness.
How mindfulness can help overcome negative emotions
1. Identify your triggers
You may be feeling stressed, angry or anxious, but you don’t realize it until you regret shouting at your partner or find yourself having difficulty falling asleep. By paying attention to your thoughts and emotions, you are able to point out the source of your negative emotions, and be aware ways to overcome them the next time.
Mindfulness allows you to be aware of the thoughts going your head (e.g. “I am so useless” and “he never appreciates me”) before the negative emotions take control of you. You may also realize the physiological changes in your body signaling the rise of the negative emotions, such as the pounding heart when you are anxious or the lack of energy when you are upset.
2. Experiencing the negative emotions without judgement
You find yourself in a situation where you realize that you are starting feeling anxious. Sit down and focus on your breathing, or focus on the plants outside the window. You acknowledge that you are feeling anxious. Yes, you are feeling anxious. However, you continue to be present and allow the anxiety to dissipate naturally.
Mindfulness prevents you from being caught up with your thoughts and feelings that would unconsciously allow you to experience the negative feelings further. When you apply mindfulness when you are feeling anxious, you say, “I notice that I am feeling anxious”, and stop there. Often, thoughts will keep coming when you are experiencing negative emotions and you may turn to automatic and ineffective behaviours in response to these thoughts.
3. Slow down
By doing nothing first, and literally pausing, you distance your emotions from your behaviour. You enable yourself to see the big picture, and consider alternative ways to respond in the situation. This would stop you from immediately criticizing your partner when you are angry, or reaching out for that alcoholic beverage when you are upset.
4. Break the cycle
Your emotions and thoughts guide your behaviour, but you do not have to follow them. Immersing in the angry or depressing thoughts itself, even without any behaviours, would only amplify the negative emotions. Mindfulness allows you to modify the emotional, cognitive, and behavioural components of your experience. At best, mindfulness allows you to navigate the most effective ways to overcome the situation that you are in. At the very least, you prevent yourself from doing something that you will regret, and which may put you in a more difficult situation than when you began.
There are various ways for one to be mindful. As highlighted above, being mindful can start with a simple pause. You can choose to learn other mindfulness techniques to further develop your ability to be present. After all, mental health issues, like anxiety disorders and depression, are driven by negative emotions. Unless triggered by a severely traumatic event, these disorders develop over a period of time. Being mindful allows you to prevent yourself from falling deeper into depression or clinical levels of anxiety.