If you are unfamiliar with the holistic or new age community- you probably hear the term mindfulness and picture someone drinking their cold pressed organic wheat grass juice while patting off their forehead sweat from their hot yoga session in a cave in Sedona. It turns out, a lot of new age and Eastern views of emotional and physical health can be healed and cured without conventional medicine or pharmaceuticals. Over recent years, psychologists, therapists, and neuroscientists are all recognizing the amazing emotional and physical benefits that people can achieve with mindfulness. But what is mindfulness exactly?
Although I believe that everybody can benefit from practicing mindfulness, it is particularly helpful for people who suffer from a wide variety of mental health issues, substance abuse issues, stress-related illnesses, and it can have a major, positive impact not only on your physical & emotional health but your relationships as well. We live in a constant, instant, forward moving-digital age where we are always trying to keep up, level up, or just flat out survive the daily grind. Social media, TV, computers, work, marriage, bills, family drama, soccer practice, kid’s schedules, dinner, laundry…..our days and minds- are completely saturated with constant thoughts about the next thing. The term I like to use is ‘future trippin’ because I am someone who constantly thinks nonstop about the next thing- next phone call, next chore, next on my to-do list, etc. I feel like my mind doesn’t stop when I am awake and low and behold- I am a recovering stress and anxiety bomb. Not only am I a recovering stress bomb, I was able to get off anti-anxiety/depression medication once I learned how to control my mind with- you guessed it- mindfulness.
Since childhood, I have always been told I had ADHD, combine that with a traumatic childhood and traumatic situations as an adult and we have a recipe for a psychiatrist’s dream client. I couldn’t sleep, I bit my nails, I always fidgeted, I yelled when I got stressed, I had emotional outbursts that were the equivalent to an adult tantrum, my blood pressure shot through the roof, my thoughts would go a million miles per hour and I would feel absolutely frazzled. This would happen at even the slightest triggers such as running a little late or my daughter has a typical toddler meltdown. One little incident would ruin my entire day because I had no idea how to regulate my emotions and cope with stress in healthy ways….until I learned about mindfulness and meditation. Meditation isn’t for everyone but seriously- you should look into it. This post isn’t about mediation but I am just sayin’ that it works wonders and has a direct correlation with mindfulness. The more I practice meditation, even if just for five minutes a day, the more I was able to get a grip on my emotions and improve my well-being. Anyways…. how was I able to incorporate mindfulness into my life so much so that I was able to essentially get rid of my emotional and behavioral issues? Well- here are the steps that I take personally to use mindfulness as a therapeutic way to regulate my emotions and keep my mental health in check. Are you ready for it? Disclaimer: I am nowhere near ‘cured’ or perfect, there are still days where I still get frazzled, but let me tell you what- it takes a hell of a lot more than a traffic delay, a broken dryer, or toddler tantrum to get me to a state of losing all my emotional control.
Become aware of your activating event. What is happening in the present moment that is triggering your stress, nervousness, tension, anger, urge, impulse, or other unsavory behavior? Notice this event and bring your attention to the fact that your emotions are escalating and you are probably not in the best place to make a rational decision. Look at the situation from another person’s perspective rather than your own as you are being influenced by your own emotions and bias. I know when I feel my activating event kicked in, I try to be conscious of what comes out of my mouth. One of my issues is my mouth as it has gotten me into a lot of trouble and said things I have regretted. If I felt stressed, I would lash out at my husband and somehow place any shred of blame I could on him because he was the nearest bystander. I was a real peach to be married to, let me tell ya! One thing that I try to tell people who struggle with how they deal with stress is to be aware of how you are being perceived by others. One day I was driving and literally yelling at my husband over him giving me the wrong directions. He was secretly video-recording me….let me just tell you- nothing puts you in your place more than seeing yourself on video behaving in a way that is absolutely mortifying. Be aware of how other people are perceiving you and yes this is entirely different than caring what people thing. Awareness and caring what other’s think are two different things!
When I observed an activating event, I would notice the tension building in my body. Most people don’t even realize how much tension they hold in their body on a daily basis. Years ago before I started this journey, I was getting steroid injections into my jaw because my TMJ was so severe. I didn’t grind my teeth at night and the doc said the only thing that could be causing me TMJ was the constant clenching of my jaw. Holy Shit. How could I not put the two together or even notice that I clench my jaw when I got stressed, nervous, mad, sad- you name it. Once I became aware of it- I freaking cured myself! Swear on my life! I have never one time since realizing this have felt pain in my jaw or had to see the TMJ doctor. Where do you carry tensions? Perhaps in your shoulders or neck? Perhaps in your fists or you curl your toes or sit on your hands? These are all physiological responses to stress and this is the way our body expresses it. Become aware of your body. Notice your heart rate go through the roof when you get stressed- learn to calm yourself down. Take long breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth and force your brain to slow your heart rate. Stop what you are doing and go sit down if needed and take back control over your body! Every day, I will literally roll my shoulders back, wiggle my toes and fingers, uncross my legs, and relax my face/jaw to release any tension that my body may be holding. You should try it sometime! Finding a physical outlet helps tremendously with this, whether it is the gym, martial arts, yoga or a creative hobby- do something that brings you joy and helps you release tension in your body. When I started Crossfit is when I really became in-tuned with listening to my body and noticing tension building in it.
Notice Impulses or Urges Surfacing
Redirect. This goes hand in hand with listening to your bodily sensations. Urges and impulses are a habitual impulse that we have learned over time. Guess what? You can un-learn them as well by building new neural pathways. How do you do that? Well- you practice and strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system which in turn, will strengthen your emotional regulation. This is how you break habits and create new ones. You feel an urge to smoke a cigarette or bite your fingernails? Notice the urge surface and choose to respond to it differently. Find an alternative to that habit- tell yourself that every time you think about eating junk food while you’re on a weight loss journey you’re going to do 10 pushups. You may giggle at the thought but I am serious. Replace an urge that is tied to a bad habit with something that will physically benefit you- it’s called healthy coping skills people! Have the urge to smoke a cigarette? Well, every time you feel it- go chug a full glass of water shift your attention to something else. Remember that energy goes where your attention flows so be mindful of where and what you’re paying attention to.
Focus On One Thing At A Time – The Present Moment
I can’t reiterate this enough! I know when I get stressed, nervous, or flustered, my eyes dart all over the room and my thoughts are going a million miles per second. I force myself to take long breaths and to focus my eyes and my thoughts about one thing at a time. That thing that you focus on should be what you can do in this exact moment- not in the next moment or in the next 15 minutes…..this very moment. Focus on that and what you can do NOW. Period. Train your brain to respond instead of reacting out of old patterns and impulses.
Accept the situation, the emotions that resulted from it, and also accept that this is a temporary circumstance/mental state and that it will pass by. I visualize myself pulling my car over on the side of a busy highway and watching the cars pass by me. I let the situation and emotions pass by me and do my best to accept it without judgment and let it all pass by and just do my best to remain calm, cool, and collected. Accept the things that you cannot change and train yourself to go with the flow, relinquish control, let it pass by, and move on.
When I talk about living in the present, this isn’t just about stress or anger control. Being mindful means that you are living in the present and observing things. Ok- so I am running late to work but guess what, I noticed those adorable hummingbirds out my window this morning. I appreciated the fact that myself, my husband, and my children all woke up this morning and are healthy and alive. I notice the little things and am constantly grateful for them. Find yourself stressed about bills? Do you have a roof over your head, clean water to drink, and food? If so- you are doing better than millions of people out there to be grateful for that. Getting perspective like this can really allow you to rearrange your priorities and makes your problems seem so damn small in the grand scheme of life. Any time I feel shitty, I literally thank the Heavens that I was born into a free country, have all of my basic needs met, don’t have to suffer from communism or oppression, don’t have to scavenge for food or be married off at a young age. We take so much for granted so it’s time to be grateful for the big things that we take for granted and to find the beauty in the little things- like the hummingbirds or the sun setting over the ocean.
This takes days, months, and years of constant practice. I do this daily and still haven’t mastered it- but I tell you what- the positive impacts that mindfulness has had on all areas of my life make the practice completely worth it. My well being has improved, my mental health has improved, all of my relationships improved, my physical health has improved, and I just flat-out have a happier, grateful, and humble perspective on life now. What happens when you fall off the wagon? Dust your shoulders off, forgive yourself, and get back on! I am absolutely nowhere near perfect, I just always try to be better than the person I was yesterday. We are all always going to be a work in progress but you need to pat yourself on the back and give yourself some credit for working on yourself. Every time you find yourself slipping or reverting back to old ways- notice it without judgment and redirect, redirect, redirect! Never, under any circumstances beat yourself up for going back to square one. You are taking that step towards bettering yourself so honor that within yourself. Millions of people don’t even notice their bad behaviors, don’t care about their emotional outbursts, and suffer not only mentally but physically as a result and will live their entire lives this way. There is scientific evidence to prove that mindfulness can help you reduce stress which can help lower your risk of heart disease, lower your blood pressure, help you deal with chronic pain and inflammation, help you sleep better, and help alleviate GI related issues (google it if you don’t believe me). Taking back control of your emotions will allow you to live a more peaceful life– you are worth it!