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Managing anxiety and stress through mindfulness

Heather Reid, LCSW | 10/6/2017 9:03:49 AM

As a therapist who bases my practice on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), I am especially interested in helping my clients develop healthier methods of managing the stressors of modern life.
Mindfulness is one effective method. Basically, mindfulness is a strategy to help one live in the moment, to awaken to their current experience, to observe what comes versus being stuck in ruminating about the past or trying to predict the future. As a result, mindfulness - when practiced routinely - can reduce daily stress, worry, increase one's capacity to focus and attend to what matters in their life. Mindfulness can be fostered by the practice of mindfulness-awareness meditation, though not everyone is interested in or able to participate in meditation.        

For the non-meditation contingent, there are alternative and effective mindfulness practices. For example, one woman I know creates beautiful cakes for family and friends. She has learned a lot about how to work with her mind as a result. She knows, for example, that she needs to pay attention to what she is doing when measuring and adding ingredients together. She pays attention to what she is doing when she completes each step from stirring the batter to frosting the layers. She must concentrate with her senses, from touch to visual to taste. At the same time, she also pays attention to her cognitions or thoughts. She knows that if she thinks too much about what she's doing, or gets distracted by other tasks she needs to complete or memories of poorly baked cakes, she will mess up her current cake. She has learned to let go of these thoughts and remain in the present. Finally, she knows that she also needs to let go of her image of the cake once it's completed, no matter how it turned out, so she will continue to enjoy the process of designing cakes.

All of these things are fundamentals of good mindfulness practice:
1. Focus on moment-to-moment details of an experience.
2. Focus on her body and all of her senses.
3. Recognizing her present experience and not become distracted by memories of the past or plans for the future.
4. Trying either too hard or not hard enough.
5. Letting go of distractions and paying attention to the present moment.
6. Noticing your experience without judging it.

Start with identifying the activities that you already engage in during which you can practice mindfulness. Most activities will work - sports of any kind, gardening, crafts, mowing the lawn, walking your dog, playing with a child, buying groceries, picking out what to wear, putting on make-up, driving the car … the list goes on.

What these activities have in common is the chance to attend to sense perceptions in the present moment. When we let go of distractions like planning an activity while talking or texting or watching a video, we can focus on what's happening right now; our sense perceptions, emotions and thoughts. And we can observe what we find.

I often go for walks in my neighborhood in the evening; I use this activity for mindfulness practice and pay attention to all of my senses. Each season provides a different array of sensory experiences. At this time of year, the leaves are still green but beginning to change to a potpourri of colors - orange, yellow, red and gold. Lawns are green and autumn plants are showing these colors too. The air carries a different scent from summer and sometimes is tinged with wood fires. I pay attention to the feel of the air, whether it's cool or still carries the heat of a lingering summer.

As I walk, I notice when the sights, smells, sounds and feelings change. My emotions may change from feeling overwhelmed by a long list of tasks to complete to feeling energized by all of these stimuli. I notice joyfulness as the sun begins to set with its color show of streaks across the horizon. I may note the ache in my lungs if the air is particularly cold. If I notice my thoughts turning to the laundry I have to fold or a particularly challenging assignment at work, I check myself by returning focus to the present.

We can notice and attend to our emotions when we feel anxious, happy, sad or scared. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, we strive to work toward bringing mindfulness to the experience of emotions as they occur. As with all skills, the more we practice, the less effort is required to be successful.

To start, keep it simple: pick one type of activity to begin your mindfulness practice. Then pay attention to the sensations in your body - your sense perceptions, your emotions and your thoughts as they come and go. Notice when you get stuck on a feeling or thought. Let it go if you can. If you get distracted or forget that you're practicing mindfulness, just start again without criticizing yourself. Most importantly, keep at it! You will soon notice changes that may lead to a healthier and more satisfying life.

Filed under: anxiety, mindfulness, stress

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