As you may know, mindfulness is somewhat of a buzzword in the world of mental health these days. There are countless books, videos, apps, and even retreats you can attend with endless amounts of information and guided practice you can engage with. Although mindfulness is gaining traction with the general public, there is still a lot of confusion and misinformation regarding what it is and how to practice it. To put it as simply as possible, mindfulness is the behavior of observing your thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions without judgement or defense.
Mindfulness has become a buzzword for good reason. Hundreds of studies have found mindfulness and mindfulness-based therapy to be especially effective for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. It’s practice has been found to be helpful in treating pain, smoking, and other forms of addiction. Mindfulness has also proven effective in improving physical health and boosting one’s immune system. In short, if you are experiencing psychological and/or physical distress and are seeking lasting relief, mindfulness can likely help
How does anxiety and OCD work?
If you suffer from anxiety or OCD, you are likely very familiar with the distressing thoughts that your mind feeds you throughout the course of the day: What if I lose my job? Was I talking too much? Does this person like me? For many, these kinds of thoughts produce uncertainty and distress. With uncertainty and distress often comes an urge to seek certainty and relief. You may do so by reviewing your work performance lately, apologizing for potentially talking too much, explaining what happened and getting someone else’s opinion, etc. Unfortunately, anxiety and OCD are maintained in the long-term by anything you do to avoid, lessen, or fight with them in the short term. Therefore, although seeking certainty and relief from the distress may seem like a reasonable response, it only strengthens the disorder in the long term.
Why is mindfulness relevant for my anxiety or OCD?
If you suffer from anxiety or OCD, it is likely that you actively engage with the thoughts your mind produces, the feelings your body produces, and/or the emotions that you experience. You may try to disprove, analyze, or distract yourself from your thoughts, change or distract yourself from your physical sensations, or dampen your emotional experiences. Granted, anxiety and OCD can be very convincing as to why you should pay attention to the activity of your mind, body, and emotions. Unfortunately, you have probably found that these means of interacting with your mind and body have not worked in doing away with your anxiety or OCD. This is because we have no direct control over the automatic thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions that we experience from moment to moment. We do, however, have control over how we react. When we react actively to these experiences by trying to do away with them, we train our brain and body that our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are dangerous. Therefore, the next time we experience them, our brain and body react accordingly and produce anxiety to motivate us to defend ourselves. Anxiety prompts us to seek relief, we oblige, and the cycle goes round and round. However, if we can work towards observing our thoughts and emotions nondefensively and nonjudgmentally no matter how convincing they are, the reinforcement cycle stops and our brain and body learn that anxiety is an unwarranted response to our internal world.
Yeah, but I’ve tried mindfulness before and I’m not good at it.
There are many misconceptions about what it means to be “good” at mindfulness. Many think that mindfulness is about reaching a state in which your mind does not produce any thoughts and you are able to remain present without distraction. Others think that they will be good at mindfulness when they can reach a state of relaxation by practicing. Consider these myths busted. You can practice mindfulness 24/7 for the rest of your life and your mind will continue producing thoughts. That is how our brain works. You can also practice mindfulness for the rest of your life and you will inevitably get distracted and carried away by your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Being good at mindfulness is all about recognizing when your attention has drifted away from observing your thoughts, feelings, and emotions nondefensively and nonjudgmentally, and gently bringing your attention back to observing. If during the span of 5 minutes, your attention drifts 1000 times, you notice it 1000 times, and gently bring your attention back to observing 1001 times, you are good at mindfulness.
I practice mindfulness using the _____ app for 10 minutes per day but I’m still anxious.
Mindfulness apps are great! They have been helpful for many people in developing an understanding of what mindfulness is and how to practice it. However, the point of practicing mindfulness using apps, videos, yoga and so on is to generalize the skill to your daily life. Therefore, use the app all you want, but when your structured practice is over, work towards utilizing the skill as you navigate your daily life. Instead of using your breath to bring you back to observing the present moment, for example, practice using whatever you’re engaged with throughout your day whether it be writing a report, watching a TV show, eating, etc.
What do I do if I get anxious when trying to be mindful?
Many people that I work with had previously developed the misconception that mindfulness is about feeling “good,” calm, or relaxed. Therefore, they decided to quit after becoming uncomfortable in their mindfulness practice. Trying to reach a particular emotional state goes against the very goal of mindfulness. Instead of working to reach a state of calm and relaxation, we are trying to acknowledge and observe whatever emotions are present without judgment or defense. Therefore, sometimes mindfulness will include anxiety, sadness, guilt, and many other emotions that our society commonly (and inaccurately) categorize as “bad.” Sometimes it will include feeling relaxed and calm. Again, if you can make space for these experiences without judgment or defense, you are teaching your mind and body that they are not dangerous and therefore do not require anxiety as a response.
I’ve got the skills, my anxiety has improved, so I’m done now, right?
At Anxiety Solutions of Denver, we are all about relapse prevention and lasting progress. Therefore, we want to make it clear that mindfulness is an ongoing practice. Think about mindfulness like going to the gym for your brain. If you reach your fitness goals and then stop going to the gym, your fitness declines and eventually you have to start again from scratch. However, if you maintain a steady exercise routine, your progress is sure to last. If you continue mindfulness practice after treatment has ended, the skill stays fresh and your progress is more easily maintained. However, if you throw it aside, you may find yourself having to shake off the rust to get yourself back on track. Don’t wait until your anxiety or OCD has returned to get back to practicing.
Mindfulness is a skill. Therefore it takes practice to develop. If you’re beginning your practice, start when you’re already in a relaxed state. If you wanted to learn how to hit a fastball, you wouldn’t start by going up to bat in game 7 of the World Series against a Major League pitcher. Hopefully, you’d start by putting the ball on a tee when the stakes are low. The same concept applies with mindfulness. If you try to practice for the first time amidst a panic attack, it is going to be difficult to apply the skill effectively. Practice while relaxed and work your way up.