July 05, 2016

An Easy Mindfulness Practice to Help You Manage Anxiety - Laurie Snodgrass

tiny bird featherMindfulness-based practices provide a way to manage anxiety, a chance to looks at things from a fresh perspective, and an opportunity to be more present and aware in the moment-to-moment experience.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a term that took me a while to make some sense of. It took a while longer to figure out how to explain the range of mindfulness experiences in some comprehensible way.

I realized that I needed to do so once I realized that members of the groups I was leading seemed puzzled about how to make sense of this term and the practice of mindfulness.

In day-to-day language being "mindful" is used to remind us to pay attention to something of value or concern. Here are some examples:
  • A prayer with a long history in my family asks me to be "mindful of the needs of others"
  • In airports, I am admonished to “be mindful of” the security of my belongings or to “mind my step”
  • Children are admonished to “mind” their manners
Various types of meditation, guided imagery, breathing practices, yoga, biofeedback, DBT and ACT all involve mindfulness but they also involve somewhat different ideas and approaches.

One famous definition of mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s, often quoted by mindfulness writers: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” This definition is helpful but I have found that it is also helpful to acknowledge the range of mindfulness practices by sharing that mindfulness, in all its variations, involves the “mind” and the focus of our attention in one of two directions:
  • Mindfulness practices may be directed toward the intentional focus of attention on an internal experience, with a purpose of better understanding, recognizing or acknowledging that experience.
  • Practice may also involve attention to a process or experience with the intention of being actively present in the moment-to-moment experience — shifting away from preoccupation about the past and future.
In practice, I believe that both of these aspects are present in many mindfulness experiences. Typically the second type of mindfulness is seen as facilitating a way of being that is of value in and of itself but may also be focused on engagement in an experience that is expected to be healthful or enriching in some way, such as meditation, relaxation, mindful attention to music, etc. A tone of non-judgmental openness to experience is also an aspect of both types of mindfulness practice. In fact, I love this reminder: we can have non-judgmental awareness even of our judgmental thoughts when they show up.

Mindfulness can help with anxiety

Overly focusing on the past and future has been identified as contributing to higher levels of anxiety and distress. We often use mindfulness in therapy to help our patients. Several days ago, I led a group in a mindfulness activity. The focus of this activity was two-fold:
  • To practice attention to the present moment in a natural setting
  • To allow for and notice any internal responses, including physical experience, connections to painful or pleasant associations, or other personal reactions; the focus here is an effort not to spend energy blocking thoughts or reactions but to allow them to be a part of the experience
Here is what we discovered during the exercise:
  • Several group members shared that they had experienced a sense of awe and wonder, as they allowed themselves to be reacquainted with the beauty and detail present in every day, but not always noticed. They expressed a desire to take more time to attend to what is present in nature, and found that this experience led to an experience of enjoyment and calm.
  • Others in the group shared some of this awe and wonder but commented that internal judgments or worries impacted their ability to focus fully on being attentive and present. They noticed they were getting caught up in worries. These individuals found themselves able to notice that this was occurring and intermittently able to see it as part of their moment-to-moment experience.
  • Many were aware of associations, thoughts, reactions and judgments that arose along with the emotions that accompanied those associations. One series of thoughts I noticed was that I was aware of "not liking" was that there was an orange cone (for some reason) sitting in a pond — and that I was interested in "not liking" that there was an orange cone sitting in the pond.
In each case, the group members noted that the structure of the activity offered some support for the return to a focus on the present when they noticed that they had drifted away from present focus.

Try these five easy steps to mindfulness

I invite you to create a daily mindfulness practice for yourself, perhaps by following the outline described below. We did this activity outdoors but it can be done in other environments. As I have just spent a few weeks traveling a lot, it occurs to me that it would be interesting to try in an airport or bus station.
  1. To begin, take a few moments in silence to notice, without judgment, whatever thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions are present for you.
  2. Take your time to “find” five colors. Notice your experience in recognizing and being aware of each individual color and variations in intensity or uniformity of that color.
  3. Find five things that are moving. Notice the speed and any other qualities of the motion.
  4. Find and notice five shapes or textures. Notice the variation or consistency of texture, pattern or shape.
  5. Finally, take time just to notice what you are drawn to, whether internally or externally, and whatever thoughts, sensations, and feelings are present.
When you feel done with the activity, take time to journal, draw, or write a poem about this experience.

What are your thoughts about bringing this or a similar practice into your day-to-day life?


Laurie Snodgrass, MFT, is a therapist at Eating Recovery Center, California.
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