How to Improve Your Mental Well-Being
January 31, 2020
If you’re anything like me when you sit down and are forced to stay still, as in yoga still, you feel as if you are trying to hold back a herd of charging elephants. In fact, the only way I could reach some semblance of body-mind stillness was when I took a hot yoga class and was forced to focus on surviving the heat and nothing else.
So I ask myself is hot yoga, a form of mindfulness in the classic sense of the word, and is mindfulness simply a way of distracting oneself from an awful present? If so, the unbearably hot and packed yoga class with temperatures and humidity feeling over 100 must certainly qualify as mindfulness.
With mindfulness on everyone’s mind (pun intended) today, it’s important to know exactly what mindfulness is and is not and whether it really does everything it’s touted to do, like help with depression and anxiety, overeating, PTSD, addictions, memory and more. More importantly, is mindfulness rooted in science or theory or bit of both?
What we do know is that meditation, practicing some form of relaxation response, whether it be yoga or just taking a few quiet moments a day can have positive physiological effects such as a modest reduction in blood pressure and cortisol levels. Practicing mindfulness takes this one step further
In the broad sense of the word, you’re practicing mindfulness when you’re intentionally directing your attention to the present moment with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance. Whether you’re taking a hot yoga class, a five-minute break from work or walking outside, as long as you’re avoiding judgment while trying to focus and refocus on whatever it is you’re doing at the present time, then it’s mindfulness.
According to Marsha Linehan, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Director of Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics at the University of Washington, mindfulness is a widely used therapeutic treatment today because of its effectiveness in focusing the mind. In other words, if you’re focusing your mind on basic sensory things that you’re doing at the moment, it makes it “very difficult to think about all the troubles you’ve got.”
Linehan goes a step further by encouraging people to make a deliberate and daily practice of mindfulness. In one of her exercises, she recommends at the beginning of any given week, clients choose a pleasant activity for that day. While they do these activities, they are asked to practice mindfulness by focusing their thoughts fully on the present activity and the sounds, sights, textures, smells and other sensory details associated with them. Linehan provides pages of examples, including hiking, organizing tools, recycling old items, watering plants, drinking tea. Linehan adds that such a daily practice, no matter how long or short, could help reduce emotional suffering and help to increase a person’s cache of positive experiences, which could help make those dark days a bit easier to cope with.
However, the scientific research on mindfulness is somewhat limited. One article in Neuroscience News claims that the misinformation about the benefits of mindfulness may cause more harm than good by leading people to believe that mindfulness by itself can be used to treat major mental health disorders. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Psychology and Psychiatry, found that children with anxiety, stress, and depression significantly benefited from mindfulness, but children with Attention Deficit Disorder and Social Behavior Disorders did not benefit from mindfulness practice.
The October 2019 edition of the Harvard Gazette reveals a recent study with adults that showed actual changes in the hippocampus region of the brain in those who practiced an eight-week mindfulness course compared to the group that practiced light exercise. The mindfulness group were more readily able to help reduce anxiety by remembering that a provoking event was no longer threatening. Yet authors of the study, Britta Holzel and others, caution against basing too much merit until larger and more intensive studies are completed.
The key point is that no matter what you are doing, while practicing mindfulness skills, you’re focusing your attention on the positive moments as they are happening. You ARE NOT multitasking. When your mind wanders to the negative, as it often will, refocus to the present and engage fully in your daily mindfulness practice with curiosity instead of judgment.
Lastly, the elephant in the room may indeed be in your mind, and perhaps the only way you can contend with the elephant is to practice accepting and being curious about it, bit by bit for a few deliberate and mindful minutes a day