by Katie Grady, MSW, CAPSW, Social Worker at Southwest Behavioral Services |
If you have anxiety and/or depression, at one time or another I am sure that you have desperately wished you were able to turn your thoughts off, even if just for a minute or two. This seems impossible since our thought processes are constant and you may feel you have no control over which thoughts cross your mind. What if there were something you could do to help redirect your mind, separate yourself from your thoughts, and choose those to which you respond? Surprisingly, this can truly be done; I am referring to Mindfulness Practice. In the most basic of terms, mindfulness is the practice of being aware of all that is occurring in the present moment – including your thoughts. It is in this awareness, that we can gain further control of our own thoughts and, most importantly, our reactions to them.
Mindfulness is an abstract idea that can be difficult to explain. In order to understand it, you need to start at a basic level. Start learning how to practice mindfulness by grounding yourself in the present moment. Look around you and take everything in using all of your senses. You may ask, “What is the point or benefit to this?” This practice is successful because it is about gaining control of your mind. You are forcing yourself to think about something specific rather than allowing for free-floating thoughts. One of my favorite quotes is: “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.” I love this quote because I think it is a perfect summation of how we spend countless hours on worrying and thinking about the worst possible scenario instead of focusing on the here and now. You can try this simple practice whenever it comes to mind, and get used to doing it as a part of your routine.
After you have gotten into the habit of grounding yourself in the present moment multiple times throughout your day, you may already notice some positive changes. On a personal level, this simple practice taught me how to stop and look around, both literally and figuratively, instead of constantly thinking of other things. Hopefully you have seen the 80’s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and can remember one of the movie’s best quotes: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” It truly is amazing how much time can fly past when we are not paying attention to what is right in front of us. We miss out on enjoying our lives to the fullest when our mind is somewhere else.
As you continue to improve in your practice, you will be able to move on to more complex exercises that include taking notice of the thoughts in your head at any given time, taking notice of how your body physically reacts to different emotions, and recognizing how you typically react to various situations. Once you are more aware of how your mind works, you will have an improved ability to stop, take a minute, and respond in a healthy and positive manner. It is important to note that mindfulness is not about suppressing your emotions and feelings. Rather, it is a way of being more aware of how you relate to those emotions. As you become more mindful, you will also improve your ability to recognize how your reactions affect others; an important part of any healthy relationship.
Mindfulness is gaining in popularity, and you can easily find a variety of resources, exercises, and suggestions. You can start by simply doing an internet search for mindfulness for depression or anxiety. You can also access books, workbooks, eBooks, and CD’s from the library. The Southwest WI Library System has multiple items in their catalog which you can access at your local library via interlibrary loan. If you would like to start immediately, try some of the simple exercises below. Note: I tell patients frequently that they may feel silly when they start out, but stick with it! You are practicing this within the confines of your own mind, so no one else will be able to judge you.
Exercise 1: Take notice of everything. Push the stop button on your thought process, and take a look around. Go through your five senses. What do you see (objects, colors, textures, movements)? What can you hear? What can you feel (temperature, what is beneath your feet, what can you reach out and touch)? What smells are present? Are you currently tasting anything? Now ask yourself which of these sensory experiences is pleasing to you. Focus on why it is pleasant. How can you re-create this in other areas of your life or how can you make sure you feel it more often? Suggestions for use: Take a sensory walk outside. Or turn off the radio in your car to focus your attention on your surroundings while driving. Or try eating mindfully and increase your awareness to texture, taste, and smell.
Exercise 2: Use the “GLAD technique.” This is borrowed from a book called The Mindfulness Toolbox by Donald Altman, MA, LPC. At least once per day, think about one thing for which you are Grateful, one thing you have Learned, one thing you have Accomplished, and one thing that brought you Delight or joy. Where patients tend to experience difficulty with this exercise is in identifying something they have learned or accomplished. If you hit a roadblock, start small. This technique does not ask that you accomplish something major or learn something profound on a daily basis. If getting out of bed this morning was difficult for you, then that is something you accomplished today, and it is worth recognizing. Maybe you learned something new while reading a book or watching TV. Or maybe you learned something new about yourself today. There are no right or wrong answers so give yourself credit for even the smallest of things.
Exercise 3: Change the channel. This is another exercise borrowed from The Mindfulness Toolbox. Think of a time when you felt good, successful, accomplished, safe, loved. Can’t think of anything? Think about a fictional story you love; maybe one that you have read over and over again. Find any positive story, and write it down if you have to. When you find yourself thinking about something negative, or dwelling repetitively on worries and unpleasantness, take note and change the channel. Don’t get mad at yourself for getting hung up on the negative, just notice it and then make the change. Thinking about that pleasant story interrupts and helps to break up those negative thought processes.
There are also some free guided meditations online that can be very useful:
- Canadian Mental Health Association cmhawpg.mb.ca/mbsr.htm
- The Shambhala Sun Foundation’s website mindful.org
- Mindfulness Awareness Research Center’s Mindful Meditations: marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22
Remember, it is called mindfulness PRACTICE, so please be patient with yourself. It will take some time to get used to. I hope you find joy in this practice and that it provides some positive effects in your life. Good luck!
Katie Grady works at Southwest Behavioral Service’s geriatric inpatient unit. Katie has her Master’s Degree in Social Work from UW Madison and provides group and individual therapy for patients while they are admitted to the unit. She also assists in managing patient care and discharge planning.