Mindfulness Made SimpleAug 05, 2022
Mindfulness made simple...because it truly doesn't have to be so complicated. If you've found yourself feeling anxious, it's likely that you have overcomplicated your efforts towards reducing anxiety. It's likely that you've found yourself spiraling in your mind about how you "should be" and what you "could be" doing in order to feel better. There's also a really high chance that you've attempted to use your rational thinking brain to combat anxious thoughts once already triggered! But here's the thing; if you're already triggered, it's going to be extremely difficult to access the rational thinking center of the brain- not because you're inadequate or faulty in any way, but because that's how the brain works (and for good reason)!
Once triggered, the lower region of the brain is activated in order to keep you safe- it takes you into flight, flight or freeze mode. This happens because the brain is trying to help you! The brain is concerned with your survival, and so, it often leads individuals to feel really anxious. When that anxiety creeps in, it can actually be a lot more helpful to befriend it- to say "hey, thanks brain for trying to keep me safe"- rather than becoming angry at it for doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing.
The challenge is this; when we are triggered with anxiety, we struggle to access the most logical part of the brain- the prefrontal cortex. In order to think in more rational ways- effectively- we need to bring that prefrontal cortex back online.
This is where mindfulness comes in.
Here are the four simple steps to kickstart your mindfulness practice (and believe me, they are simple):
It's important to know that when feeling anxious, it isn't necessary to FIX anything right away. It isn't necessary to identify a solution right away. It definitely isn't necessary to force a shift towards peace and joy. It is however necessary to gain presence. So here's some detail on how we can move through each step successfully- allowing for natural, gradual and effective change in the moment.
1) Notice- Stop to notice that you're feeling anxious. But not only that- in addition to noticing the presence of your anxious thoughts, begin to notice whether the anxious thoughts are having an impact on your physical body. And don't stop there! As you notice the presence of your anxiety, begin to also notice where your body is showing up in the world. Are you in an office? In a room? In your bed? Start to then notice the surrounding environment. Notice the presence of any sounds, textures, smells, or even tastes. Let's engage those senses- and allow them to support you in NOTICING what is happening within you, on you, and around you... begin to extend your attention beyond the anxiety itself by connecting with the rest of what exists in the present moment.
2) Observe- Once you've noticed, start to deepen your observation by watching for a more prolonged period of time. Meaning, if you notice curtains in your room... observe everything about the curtains (observe whether they sway by the gentle force from the air blowing from the air conditioner, observe the way the light shines through or doesn't shine through them, observe the textures, observe the shapes, slowwww down... and observe). As you observe and invite yourself to connect with something you can take in sensory wise- something you wouldn't typically notice if you weren't intentionally looking for something to observe- you are lighting up that prefrontal cortex and providing more opportunity for your brain to begin thinking in more rational, effective and supportive ways.
(Side note: it's important to remember that just because you slow down, doesn't mean you are denying yourself the opportunity to think about those things that are making you anxious. You can think about them. You will think about them. And you will do so when you are in a more calm state of mind.)
3. Breathe- Now it's time to connect with the breath, and I'll tell you why this is important. On each inhale and exhale, you are both activating and deactivating the central nervous system. It is through each exhale that you are becoming more and more grounded, and more connected with the "rest and digest" function of the brain and body, as opposed to the "fight and flight" function. As you breathe, focus on the sound and sensation of the breath. And I mean, really focus. Focus on the subtle details related to the sensations of the breath- like whether the breath enters and exits through your nostrils or your mouth, noticing whether the breath is cool or warm, acknowledging whether the breath is shallow or deep (no judgement, just observation), and noticing whether the breath is slow or forced. Just noticing, with acceptance, will allow you to connect with "rest and digest" and will calm and center the brain and body so that you can begin thinking rationally, connecting with the verbiage you're looking for (in order to name your experience with clarity), and engaging with your ability to effectively problem solve- all aspects of the prefrontal cortex.
4. Label- The last step of the mindfulness basics requires you to now label your experience. We cannot label our experience- naming the emotion, the thoughts, the behavioral patterns, the environmental aspects of our existence- if we are not first fully connected to the here and now. This is why "Label" is the last step. After noticing, observing and breathing, we have now strengthened the brain's ability to connect to the functions that allow us to (with non judgement and with increased awareness) name the experience. As we label the experience, it's important to remain connected the present moment while also allowing for a detachment from the anxious thoughts (as they are indeed just thoughts- abstract aspects of our experience). Meanwhile, there is so much concrete detail surrounding our abstract experience; and if we allow ourselves to connect with the concrete details, we can begin to respond to our abstract experience more intentionally, effectively and peacefully. So for example, you might label... "I am practicing mindfulness" or "I am feeling angry" or "My hands are shaky" or "My eyes are wide open." Essentially, you begin providing a play-by-play of every details that you have begun noticing, observing and breathing through.
As you practice these mindfulness basics, you may begin to recognize that even without changing anything about your life circumstances, you may begin to change your inner narrative, your emotional experience and your behavioral responses (which are the aspects of you that you truly have control over).
I invite you to practice these mindfulness basics, and I invite you to practice them often. The more we practice, the stronger we get. Just as in any skill we hope to master, we have to put in the effort on a consistent basis. I encourage you to practice these skills in situations that feel joyful and calm for you, and then work your way up to practicing these skills when in stressful situations. You got this.
For audible learning on this topic- and to hear a more personal story that reflects the power of mindfulness, check out the newest episode on the Mindful Revamp Podcast.
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