Last updated: November 15, 2020
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the mental skill set that comes from the practice of meditation. It is the ability to keep our attention focused on the present moment in a relaxed and nonjudgmental fashion. Mindfulness is associated with a lessened reactivity to stress and an improved ability to focus.
The ancient practice of mindfulness meditation — which has been practiced for thousands of years in parts of Southeast Asia — is the most effective way to become more mindful in our everyday lives. This is because meditating trains us to notice when we’ve become distracted and learn how to “come back” to the present moment. We can also become more mindful by limiting the time we spend multitasking at work, at home, or on the go.
The Benefits of Mindfulness for Physical and Mental Health
Clinical research demonstrates that mindfulness is a promising approach for people struggling with anxiety, chronic pain, hypertension, and other medical and mental health conditions. It is also an important component in several kinds of psychotherapy including dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a program that is based on mindfulness meditation. It is typically offered in a group format that is more like a class than it is like group therapy. Research has suggested it can be helpful for people suffering from problems ranging from stress to anxiety and depression to chronic illnesses.
Psychotherapists will sometimes teach their clients mindfulness exercises because of how helpful it can be for anxiety and emotional health. Many mental health problems can be caused (or exacerbated) by an aversion to certain emotions. Relatedly, recognizing our emotions when they’re occurring is a fundamental to mental health. Practicing mindfulness of emotions can help increase tolerance for—and awareness of—these emotions, which may improve mental health.
How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation
As mentioned above, the best way to practice being mindful is to do mindfulness meditation. Here is a quick guide:
1. Take a seated position.
You can sit in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. Ensure that your back is straight and that you feel comfortable enough to remain in that position for a good while. If you’re in a chair, try to sit up straight without leaning against the back of the chair. Meditate with your eyes closed if that’s comfortable for you; if it isn’t, keep your eyes open but keep them down, centering your gaze on a spot on the floor several feet in front of you.
2. Turn your attention to your breathing.
Meditation is not relaxation training; it is attentional training. Therefore, it’s important that we be aware of what we are doing with our attention when we meditate.
Begin by directing your attention to your breath. It’s not necessary to breathe more deeply than is natural; just notice the feeling of the air going in your nose or mouth as you inhale. Notice the feeling in your abdominal muscles as your torso expands with each inhalation. Try to pinpoint the moment when your inhalation becomes an exhalation. Pay rapt attention to the whole breathing process. (As you become more experienced, you can expand your awareness beyond your breath to things you hear, smell, or see.)
You’ll find that focusing on your breathing keeps you anchored in the present moment—this is a key piece of mindfulness practice. (Mindfulness meditation can also use the senses as a focus in addition to the breath, typically sights or sounds. Like focusing on the breath, focusing on our senses also helps keep us in the present moment.)
3. Notice when your mind wanders.
Inevitably, within a few seconds of directing your attention to your breath, your mind will lose its focus. You may start to have thoughts like, This is going great! I’m finally meditating! This will really help me out, I’m sure…. or I’m not doing this right—I’m supposed to be noticing my breath but I’m breathing too fast for this to work. Maybe I should slow down…
Regardless of the content of your thoughts, once you’re thinking, you are no longer focused on your breath. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this is very normal and part of the process.
4. When you notice your mind wandering — come back.
An important part of mindfulness meditation is noticing that your mind has strayed from is initial focus on your breath and instead become absorbed in thought.
Once you realize this, try to non-judgmentally redirect your attention back to the breath. When you’ve noticed your mind has wandered, try not to get frustrated. Similarly, regardless of what types of thoughts arise, try to impartially observe them for a moment before you return your attention to your breath. Remember, there are no good thoughts and no bad thoughts. There are no thoughts that make you special and no thoughts to be ashamed of—they’re just thoughts.
We become less reactive to our thoughts by practicing not judging them. This is one of the most helpful aspects of practicing meditation and has numerous positive consequences. With regular practice, our judgments (of ourselves and others) become less reflexive — even when we’re not meditating. Negatively judging ourselves can be an obstacle to mindfulness — it’s important to practice being kind toward ourselves when meditating.
Try sitting for 5 minutes at first and then gradually work your way up to more time. Mindfulness meditation is ideally done on a daily basis. It’s better to do a little each day than to do a lot on rare occasions. The key to deciding how long to meditate is to not be so ambitious that you end ditching the habit altogether.
How to Practice Mindfulness in “Regular” Life
You can also practice mindfulness when not meditating. Look for things you do regularly that are solitary and not very mentally demanding — like eating, taking a shower, or washing the dishes. Try to keep your attention fully and completely on the task at hand. Focus on how it feels/sounds/tastes to do the task—and only that task. When your thoughts wander elsewhere, bring your attention back to whatever you’re doing.
A practice opportunity: The shower
Taking a shower is a great time to practice mindfulness. How often have you become so lost in thought in the shower that you forgot what you’ve already washed and what you haven’t? This is what un-mindfulness feels like. A shower is a great mindfulness practice opportunity because there is nothing else you need to do when you’re in the shower besides… taking a shower.
To practice mindful showering, start at the moment you step in and turn on the water. Notice your reaction to the water first hitting your body. Notice what your mind does once you’re in the shower. Does it turn to what you need to do later that day? Or review something aggravating that happened earlier? Does it try to make important future plans? Notice this pull into distracted thought, and when you do, return your attention to the sounds and sensations of the shower. Rest your mind on these sensations and let your attention focus on them. When you notice you’ve been caught up in thought again, repeat the process of bringing your attention back to your senses, similarly to what was described above for meditation. (See also our additional tips for practicing mindfulness.)
Mindfulness and Anxiety
Even if you’re not in therapy or taking medication for anxiety, mindfulness practice can be helpful. As mentioned above, daily practice of meditation is the best way to use mindfulness to help with your anxiety. Mindfulness is not a cure-all for anxiety, to be sure, but it can help, especially if you experience bodily symptoms of anxiety like muscle tension and lightheadedness.
Whether your anxiety takes the form of panic attacks, social anxiety or generalized anxiety, mindfulness practice can help if you are able to a) practice mindfulness when you meditate and b) look actively for opportunities to apply this awareness to moments when you’re not meditating — including ones when you’re starting to feel anxious.
One way to do this is to look for uninteresting moments throughout your day and to practice informal five-second mindfulness meditations in the midst of whatever you’re doing. For example — you can do this when sitting at a red light in your car, or after finishing a meeting at work, or right before seeing or calling a friend. These five-second meditations can have the effect of breaking any momentum your anxiety has built up.
Mindfulness and OCD
If you suffer from OCD, mindfulness can be helpful in certain situations. However, mindfulness practice by itself will likely not be sufficient to fully address OCD. Mindfulness should be applied differently for different symptoms of OCD — as you’ll read below.
If you engage in compulsions as part of your OCD — for example, hand washing; counting things; or checking your stove or door locks, or appliances — mindfulness can help you delay or resist the urge to perform the behavior. This is a helpful thing if you can do it — if you can, it’s like doing the “response” prevention part of exposure and response prevention therapy. When you feel the urge to do the compulsion, pause for a moment. Notice the feeling — is it a physical one, or a mental one? Get curious. Turn your attention to what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling. Keep your attention on your senses for 30 seconds if you can, and if your mind wanders just renew your focus on what you’re sensing. At the end of that 30 seconds, is the urge to do the compulsions weaker? The same? Stronger? Try to delay doing the compulsion if you can.
The more you practice mindfulness when compulsions arise, as described above, the more you’re weakening the “compulsive habit.” This will improve your OCD symptoms over time.
Intrusive thoughts (obsessions)
If your OCD symptoms involve intrusive thoughts, mindfulness can help with those as well. Mindfulness meditation helps us practice relating with all of our thoughts equally — no one thought is treated as more important than another. If you suffer from intrusive thoughts (obsessions) you can practice using this mindful stance toward the intrusive thoughts.
Any time the thoughts come up, remember that as in meditation, you have the capacity to let the thought be there without getting sucked into the question it poses (e.g., am I a psychopath? or did I hit someone with my car earlier, and didn’t notice? or do I actually want to stab my child with this knife?). It is not easy to do, and it certainly won’t make an intrusive thought go away. However, it will help you deal with the thoughts in a healthy way that, over time, will help you have fewer such thoughts.
Mindfulness and Depression
Can mindfulness practice help you if you suffer from depression? It’s likely that it can, especially if unhealthy negative thinking tends to accompany your depression.
Practicing mindfulness meditation helps you to take your thoughts less seriously. When your thoughts worsen your mood, mindfulness has a helpful effect. Some people with depression do what’s called ruminating. This means they repeatedly (and somewhat intentionally) think about something that worsens their mood. Mindfulness can be an excellent habit for depressed people who tend to ruminate because it provides a tool to help curtail these repeated thought processes. How does this work, exactly?
In mindfulness meditation we practice turning away from thoughts that have hijacked our attention. We do this over and over again. This turns out to be exactly the skill set needed to help people who tend toward rumination. The more mindfulness meditation you do, the greater the chances you will be able to reduce your tendency toward rumination, and thus lessen depression.
When Is Mindfulness Not Enough?
Mindfulness can be useful in all the situations described above, and in some cases can even help someone avoid the need for therapy or medication. However, it’s quite common for people to practice mindfulness regularly and still have need for additional help. There is no shame in that! Mindfulness practice will typically only enhance the effect of therapy or medication. But how can you know when it’s time to get professional help?
There is no quick and easy answer to this question, but if you find that your anxiety or OCD are affecting your ability to do your job, your relationships with friends and family, or just making you miserable, it’s good to consider a consultation with a professional. If you would like mindfulness to be part of the solution, consider cognitive-behavioral therapy as an option. It is effective in the treatment of the above-described problems, and is works well together with mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
Mindfulness helps you reduce anxiety by practicing our inherent ability to be mindfully present, focused, and relaxed. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) offers many other effective strategies to reduce anxiety. Deciding to use mindfulness or CBT is not an either/or proposition — you can certainly do both together or do either alone.
One example of how mindfulness practice can work well with CBT can be found in unhealthy thinking patters. For example, many people with anxiety have a tendency to focus disproportionately on unlikely negative possibilities (e.g., what if I get pancreatic cancer?). CBT can help you learn to cope with these fears more effectively. Mindfulness makes that process easier. A CBT therapist might teach you to systematically evaluate the evidence for a thought. This can be challenging! But if you’re practicing mindfulness regularly, it becomes easier because you’ll be better aware of your thought processes.
At the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, some of our therapists specialize in combining MBSR and CBT. Dr. Visvanathan and Dr. Greene specialize in this work. For those who are seeking the traditional class-like group format of MBSR, we recommend the NYC Mindfulness Collaborative.
The Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy provides treatment for adults and children suffering from anxiety, depression, OCD, and related disorders. If you’re interested in working with one of the therapists at our Midtown Manhattan office or via teletherapy, please contact us. We offer teletherapy services to those in New York State, New Jersey, Florida, and to people outside the United States. If you’re looking for a provider in a location we do not serve, please do contact us and we can recommend a provider near you.