First, a couple of questions:
- Have you ever found yourself reading something and you get to the bottom of the page and you have no idea what you just read?
- Have you ever found yourself in conversation with someone and their mouth is moving and you hear sound, but you’re thinking instead about that delicious smoothie you had for breakfast or the to-do list you have for meeting that project deadline in the afternoon?
If the answer is yes to either, know that you are not alone.
Research done at Harvard University showed that nearly 47% of our waking hours, we are thinking about something other than what we’re doing; so about half of the time, our mind is wandering. What is going on is external stimuli are pulling our attention in many different directions, and we are training our brains to be in a state of continuous partial attention. As technology continues to impact our daily lives and activities, we need to learn ways to manage our time and attention. We need an off switch, and that’s where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness and Its Benefits
Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment in an accepting, nonjudgmental way. It’s being aware of what’s happening as it’s happening. The practice of mindfulness meditation is a way to train the mind. When we practice mindfulness, we’re practicing the art of creating space for ourselves — space to think, space to breathe, space between stimulus and response, and space to listen to others.
Some of the benefits of mindfulness include:
- decreased stress level
- a greater ability to manage our emotions
- improved focus
- more empathy for others
- less anxiety and depression
- a stronger immune system
- improved sleep
From all these benefits, you can see how connected the mind and body are. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors lived in fear of unexpected dangers, like a saber-toothed tiger that may be lurking nearby. In response to acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated, putting it into fight or flight mode. Although our stressors have changed and there’s no longer worry about a saber-toothed tiger lurking in our midst, our brain is still wired to react — and our body to respond — in the same way, no matter what type of stress we’re having.
When we feel anxious and stressed, some of the symptoms may feel like the heart is pounding, or we start to sweat. We may feel our muscles tighten and a shortness of breath. We may have digestive issues, or our face gets flushed. We may feel tingling or dizziness or difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly. The good news is that mindfulness and the practice of mindfulness meditation can deactivate the fight-or-flight mode and activate our parasympathetic nervous system, or “rest and digest” mode, which produces a calm and relaxed feeling in the mind and body.
Mindfulness Meditation Exercise
The accompanying video (above) includes a three-minute mindfulness meditation exercise that will help demonstrate how mindfulness can bring your attention to the present moment. The video also offers guidance on when, where and how you can practice mindfulness.
Caren Osten is a certified positive psychology coach and writer. She works with individuals and groups who seek to cultivate greater positivity, clarity and calm as they navigate life’s daily stresses, challenges and shifts. Osten leads workshops and speaks publicly, sharing the benefits, practices and science of optimism, self-compassion, mindfulness and resilience. A contributor to The New York Times, PsychologyToday.com, Mindful and other publications and websites, Osten writes about health, well-being, travel and education. Learn more about her work at www.carenosten.com and find her @carenosten on Twitter and Instagram.