Have you ever found yourself standing in a long line—perhaps at a store, or the bank. It seems to be taking forever and no one is moving. You sacrificed your lunch time to be here, and you start to wonder if you'll have any time to eat at all. You check your phone and scroll through Facebook aimlessly. The person behind you is standing too close and seems to have a cold from the way they keep sniffling and sneezing. You're too busy to get sick! Why isn't this line moving? You feel a mixture of anxiety and frustration bubbling up as a simple errand has turned into a small nightmare, and you find yourself in a bad mood for the rest of the day.
Is the above experience a common phenomenon for you? Everyone experiences difficult emotions. These emotions are a normal part of the human experience (see article: Stay Positive? Ways that "Negative" Emotions are Healthy), but it becomes a problem when the intensity of these emotions has a lingering negative impact in your life.
Wouldn't it be great if you didn't feel so overwhelmed with difficult, draining emotions as often as you do? If instead of getting stuck in the frustrating emotion, you were able to move on more easily and enjoy your life? Thankfully, this is a skill that can be learned and practiced, and it's called "emotional regulation." Neuropsychological research has shown the powerful impact that mindfulness has on our brain in terms of regulating our emotions. Mindfulness originated from Hinduism and Buddhist practices and has more recently become popular in secular meditative practice. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes it as follows: “Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.” While there are many well-established and research-backed benefits to meditation, you don't have to meditate to begin practicing mindfulness and reaping its many benefits. So, what is it?
To practice mindfulness, first consciously take a few breaths and take note of your surroundings. Engage your five senses and notice what you see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. As you experience emotions or thoughts, notice them non-judgmentally and let them pass, bringing your attention back to your surroundings. It is normal for many distracting thoughts and feelings to come and go, like leaves drifting along a stream. Each time you find yourself disengaging from your surroundings, non-judgmentally acknowledge the thought or emotion, and re-direct your attention.
It's that simple! And the more you do it, the better you get at doing it. Practicing mindfulness is like a mental workout, and you will become stronger and more skilled as you work at it. Here are some ideas of when you can incorporate mindfulness into your daily life:
1. Boring or frustrating activities
Times when you are forced to wait or do something mildly unpleasant are an excellent time to practice mindfulness. Think about standing in line, driving on a long trip alone, or doing the dishes. As always, start with breathing, and notice your surroundings. Most likely, you will find your mind wandering to a whole number of topics. Notice these thoughts, and return your attention back to your breath and where you are presently. Feelings of impatience and frustration are also common during these types of activities. Notice these feelings non-judgmentally, and allow them to pass.
You can eat mindfully too, and it may help to stave off overeating. Put away and turn off distractions such as your phone or the TV. Look at your food. Notice how it looks. Notice the aroma of the food. If you experience thoughts or feelings (whether they are related or not to your food doesn't matter), acknowledge them non-judgmentally and allow them to pass. When you take a bite, try to fully taste the food. Notice the texture. You don't need to try and be mindful for your entire meal, but try to do it for the first few bites.
3. Pleasurable activities
Mindfulness can also help us experience positive activities more fully. For instance, most people enjoy listening to music. Focus in on the sound, the beat, the tone. Notice what emotions or thoughts that the music evokes, without doing anything about them. Simply let them surface, and notice them non-judgmentally. It may be helpful to listen to slower or calming music and practicing mindfulness, rather than attempting to do it while listening to faster music.
4. Morning and bedtime routines
Activities such as taking a shower, brushing your teeth, or making that first cup of coffee or tea in the morning are excellent times to practice mindfulness. For example, if you are taking a shower, notice the water running down your body. Be aware of how it feels when you scrub your body and lather your hair with shampoo. Mundane routines are a time when we become lost in thought, so this is the perfect time to practice being mindful. Remember each time you notice your mind wandering, you acknowledge the thought bring yourself back.
You don't need to try and be mindful at all times, and you don't need to to try and maintain a state of mindfulness for an entire activity. Try it for a few moments throughout the day. Practicing mindfulness regularly will help increase your ability to regulate your emotions and not get swept up in getting stuck inside your thoughts. If you find this beneficial, you may wish to pick up a more formal practice of meditating. The benefits of a regular meditation practice are abundant, and it can be as easy as focusing on your breath for 5 minutes a day.