So I have a confession. I am not as well versed in the practice of mindfulness as some other therapists. I identify most with cognitive approaches to therapy, so early on in my career I didn’t really give it a chance. To be completely honest, I never bought into it because I never fully dove deep enough to understand it. I thrive on tangible experiences with concrete explanations and this didn’t fit.
Once I finally decided to allow myself to explore a little, I actually found practicing mindfulness to be an incredibly structured and effective way to help manage anxiety and other mental health symptoms. What didn’t make sense started to make sense. If mindfulness is about bringing our attention to the the present moment, this makes it impossible to think about anything else. And taking it a step further, if we have the ability to focus on the present then that means that we actually do have control of our thoughts. Aha, mindfulness is taking our mind off of one thing and intentionally putting it onto another. Now that computes in my CBT brain.
Practicing Mindfulness Gives Our Brain A Break From Our Ruminating Thoughts
Let’s look at how this applies to ruminating, or repetitive obsessive, thoughts. When we struggle with anxiety, our thoughts are often amplified to the point that it feels that we living the life of a stuck broken record. Thinking the same thing over and over again without any change or relief. This promotes the core belief that “I cannot stop thinking about it” or “I have no control of my thoughts”
Oh, but there’s the practice of mindfulness, my dear. When we tap into the other things going on around us we have no choice but to unstick ourselves, even if just for a moment. Think about it. When we smell something lovely, there’s a split second where your brain stops what it’s doing and recognizes the pleasant aroma. Or when you’re outside and it starts unexpectedly raining. There’s no way not to notice it. And for just a teensy tiny moment, your brain shifts to the present. This totally counters the narrative that “I can’t stop thinking about it” or “I have no control of my thoughts.” Yes, actually, you do.
It Can Help Prevent Anxiety
Not only can it help you work your way out of an anxious spiral, proactively practicing mindfulness is an incredibly effective way to prevent anxiety early on. The key is being intentional in your awareness. When you start to understand what triggers your anxiety, you can proactively practice mindfulness to help prepare and armor yourself.
For example, if I know that a certain scenario brings me a lot of anxiety, I can go ahead and have a mindfulness plan in place. Maybe I’m going to a social event and worried about interacting with lots of people. I can go ahead and give myself a little challenge of noticing some of the other things around me. Like the food, or the decorations, or anything that I can find that brings me comfort. Doing this in the moment will help take your mind off of the stressor and put it on something else. And, even more so, preparing this upfront takes down the anticipatory anxiety.
Putting It All Together
Basically, what I learned about practicing mindfulness is that it can really help us gain better control and awareness of our thoughts. This helps to reduce anxiety that is already present. It also helps to prevent future panic while also addressing anticipatory anxiety head on. Needless to say, I’m sold.