Mindfulness is a self-care tool that can help us slow down and manage our thoughts. But, it can be a hard activity to approach when your mind is overwhelmed or racing.
Do you find it hard to be mindful with a mind that's full? It's certainly a challenge I can relate to. Yet, it's possible to overcome this challenge by breaking the process into small, achievable steps.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a mental and physical technique you can use to focus your awareness on the present moment. The idea is that by being in the moment it's easier for you to acknowledge, accept and cope with painful or intrusive thoughts, feelings and sensations.
Mindfulness and meditation often come up in association with one another. But there is a difference! Meditation is more of an umbrella term for a variety of practices that focus on reaching a higher level of consciousness. This could be through prayer, music, movement, mantra . . . the list goes on. Whereas mindfulness is the specific act of focusing on the present moment. Essentially it's recognising your feelings, thoughts and actions in the here and now.
Obstacles to mindfulness
In the past there have been a number of obstacles that stopped me practicing mindfulness. When I've been in distress, or experiencing an acute episode, I've found it to be a very difficult concept to master.
I initially thought to achieve mindfulness I would need to practice meditation, and this would take at least 20 to 40 minutes a day.
Not only that, the very word 'mindfulness' ignited images of pretty people on Instagram sitting with their eyes closed and being 'mindful'. Which seemed outside my genre and was far too trendy or cool for me.
My eureka moment
After having my well-managed depressive disorder spin into a major breakdown, I found myself scrambling to reassess my list of coping strategies. I went through the list trying to find what I could realistically do in this period of crisis. Scarily, my carefully prepared list quickly dwindled.
I didn't have much energy so exercise seemed too hard. I was too anxious to leave the house, so seeing friends, watching the ocean, or getting out in nature seemed out of reach as well.
Then I got to mindfulness. I balked. My brain was stuck. A broken record. Loop after loop I asked myself, 'How can I focus on my mind? I really can't do this. What an impossible idea! I'd be so bad at that! I'm a failure!'
In a moment of survival I changed my thinking and found a new way to approach this technique. Basically, I changed the spelling.
Changing your mind (pardon the pun)
I asked myself, 'What if I just did mindfulness but with a mindFULL? What if I approach it as mindFULL moments?'
I emphasised the FULL. It wasn't about quietening my mind (which seemed too intimidating), it wasn't about finding peace (when your body is jittering with thoughts this is probably impossible), rather it was about accepting and moving.
On days when I felt empty, emotionless, or deflated I told myself to find a mindFULL moment. I invited the despair to the party.
I would lay on the floor and take five breaths on each side, turning my head. My mind kept telling me negative things I couldn't stop. 'This is stupid! It's pointless! You're pointless!' But I told myself all I had to do was be there, I could cry, and that was okay because it was a mindFULL moment (which can literally be a minute) and all my internal criticisms were invited.
On days when I was shaking with nervous anxiety and struggling due to my thoughts, I invited them to a mindFULL moment. I chose a song and read the lyrics while It played.
When I was at work and seeking a place to just let my brain be . . . boom mindFULL moment. I'd go and get a cold drink and sip it slowly as its coolness met my baggage of thoughts.
Over the next few weeks, each day I would ask myself if I had found time for a mindFULL minute, moment, or activity. If I hadn't that was okay, I just had to try to find one minute, nothing more.
This may sound too simple. You may be wondering what being 'in the moment' for a minute and recognising your fears or failures will practically do. But these minutes helped me slow down and have a gentle attitude towards myself as I worked through my recovery. I was able to slowly expand my moments and witness my thoughts without feeling overwhelmed.
Even when you feel like you might be rubbish at self-care, even if you think you don't have the mental capacity to practice mindfulness, remember to break it down into small, simple actions. When it comes to managing your symptoms, sometimes it's the little things that combine to make a big difference.
Have you used mindfulness to help manage your symptoms? What obstacles did you face? And what coping strategies did you use? Add your comment to the discussion on Facebook.
Laura is a mental health professional who manages symptoms of anxiety and depression.