When was the last time you stopped to smell the flowers, noticed a beautiful cloud or savored the flavors and textures of your food? If you rush through your day on autopilot, only vaguely aware of what you’re doing or how you’re feeling, you may be missing out on the proven health benefits of mindfulness, from decreased stress and anxiety to improved moods, healthier relationships and better overall physical and emotional health.
The formal practice of mindfulness, often used in the context of meditation, is a way of being fully present to all of your experiences. By expanding your attention with an attitude of curiosity and self compassion, you can get in touch with a sense of wholeness and wellbeing that is not dependent on the events presently occurring in your life.
How Mindfulness Works
Denise Dempsey, who leads mindfulness-based stress reduction classes for the Sutter Center for Integrative Health in Sacramento and Davis, says, “It’s not the stress, it’s how you handle it. The practice of mindfulness can ease suffering in ways that transforms your relationship to conditions like chronic pain, anxiety or depression.”
Becoming a witness to your thoughts is an important part of mindfulness practice. “Thoughts are like a river, and most of the time, you are right in the water,” says Dempsey. “But you can make the conscious shift to standing on the bank, watching the river go by. With practice, you have something solid to stand on as emotions and sensations swirl by.”
Mindfulness proponents believe that becoming more objective of thoughts and emotions can ease emotional and physical suffering.
“When uncomfortable emotions come, the tendency is to want to run or hide—to employ strategies like avoidance, distraction, minimization or denial to feel safe and secure, even though this inevitably adds to mental suffering,” says Janetti Marotta, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of 50 Mindful Steps to Self-Esteem who teaches mindfulness classes at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
“Practicing mindfulness helps bring awareness to both physical and emotional pain, creating space for pain to soften or simply be,” Marotta says. “When you befriend your body and work with pain by learning how to be with it, the experience of pain lessens.”
Even if you don’t identify right now with physical or emotional pain, a mindfulness practice can deepen your joy and enthusiasm for life and your connections to others. And when life’s challenges do arise, mindfulness tools increase your capacity to cope more effectively.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder and former director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, helped usher mindfulness practice into mainstream medicine in 1979 through his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program, offered at several Sutter sites.
The majority of people who complete the eight-week program report:
- An increased ability to relax.
- Greater energy and enthusiasm for life.
- An ability to cope more effectively with short- and long-term stressful situations.
- Major improvements in pain-related anxiety, depression, hostility and the tendency to become preoccupied with painful sensations in body and mind.
- Lasting decreases in difficult physical and psychological symptoms.
Can’t take a class? Marotta suggests these tips to cultivate mindfulness during trying times:
Focus on the Good
Instead of focusing on what’s wrong or wishing your experience were different, notice what’s not wrong. Recast situations in a wholesome light: You’re stuck in traffic, but now you have time to listen to your favorite podcast or radio show.
If you feel separate and alone, reflect on the truth that just like you, everyone wants to be happy. Be open to the sense of a common humanity and send good wishes to one and all.
When a distressing emotion arises, stop and breathe. Create space so that you can disengage from simply reacting and consciously choose how you wish to respond.
Instead of resisting or avoiding something, turn toward what is difficult. Meet the situation not as an obstacle or problem, but as an opportunity or challenge. Bring forth an attitude of curiosity.
Notice how you’re relating to a difficult situation, such as shutting down or obsessing. Begin anew by choosing actions that help you feel a sense of hope or positivity.