LivingMental Health

Mindfulness: A Glimmer of Hope in the Gloom

By Dr. Divyani Sharma

During these changing times, people seem to be moving towards what we call the new normal, looking at both facets of their wellbeing – emotional as well as physical health. When we think about emotional wellbeing, our psychological management is imperative. But there is also a dire need to increase higher awareness on accessing authentic healing methods that are often used as a support to greater emotional and physical wellbeing. Mindfulness as we know, is the practice of becoming more fully aware of the present moment rather than dwelling in the past, what’s going on around us, or projecting into the future. Sure, Mindfulness is a buzz word today, but there’s definitely a reason for the hype. Research shows that mindfulness can help to improve the childbirth experience, reduce stress and increase empathy, and promote healthier eating habits.

How does mindfulness work?

Some experts believe that mindfulness works, in part, by helping people to accept their experiences—including painful emotions—rather than react to them with aversion and avoidance. It generally involves a heightened awareness of sensory stimuli such as our breathing and being “in the now.” Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.

Mindfulness is a rare pandemic silver lining

A global pandemic is in full effect. With the averted risks around health and economic constraints, chances of feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and afraid is heightened. The survival part of our brain (mainly the amygdala) kicks in when we perceive a threat and causes our focus to narrow. This is helpful when we face an immediate threat, but it also means our thinking can follow unproductive patterns: We are more likely to engage in worst-case scenario thinking or, alternatively, deny the threat; we have less access to the creative and analytical parts of our brain; and we are impair in our ability to empathize, listen, and relate to others.

Unfortunately, those are the exact skills we need in times of crisis. We need the full capacity of our brain to weigh best possible options, question our assumptions, come up with new and creative ways of doing things, and remain calm in order to reassure others while listening and taking their concerns seriously. Practicing mindfulness can be of tremendous help during times like this. To reduce anxiety, calm the amygdala, increase our ability to think creatively and empathetically take other people’s perspective.

Mindfulness is not (necessarily) meditation

Mindfulness and meditation are not one and the same. Meditation is an activity, something you do. There are many forms of meditation—some involve focusing on our breath, some involve imagining a calming scene, some involving repeating a mantra.

Mindfulness, however, is more of a philosophy than an activity. It’s an idea: to simply be here and now, without judgment. One doesn’t need to follow a ritual during a specific time to practice mindfulness. You could be washing your car, having a snack, jogging around the park, playing your dog, singing in the shower… All of these activities can be done in a mindful way by being fully present in the moment.

Of course, you can definitely practice mindfulness using meditation. But not all meditation is mindful. For example, some meditations guide your imagination through a relaxing scene. But mentally traveling to a different place instead of being here and now is the opposite of being mindful. If we think mindfulness always looks like sitting cross-legged and humming a mantra, then we’re less likely to give it a try or to cultivate it long-term, so it’s an important difference to understand.

Mindfulness is not a cure-all

Mindfulness has been incorporated into all sorts of psychotherapies, and sometimes even into performance-boosting programs. Lots of headlines make it seem like mindfulness is the miracle elixir for all of our ills, from low motivation to anxiety to insomnia. But mindfulness is not a cure-all.

Most of the clinical trials that show mindfulness as improving symptoms included other psychotherapy “ingredients”. Like working through unhelpful thoughts or increasing activity level. Mindfulness practice plus setting goals and talking to a therapist about your thoughts is helpful for decreasing stress. Less catchy, but more of the whole picture.

Mindfulness is about paying attention

To sum up, mindfulness is powerful. It can serve as a solid foundation for self-awareness and well-being. But it won’t solve all your problems and we should philosophically cultivate it.

When we boil it down to the basics, being mindful really just means paying attention to reality through our senses. It means watching the leaves and flowers when we run through the park instead of going on autopilot. And it means letting yourself feel discomfort fully instead of trying to ignore it. It means really tasting the food you’re eating, instead of inhaling your soup while working at your desk.

 About the Author

Dr. Divyani Sharma (RCI Registered Clinical Psychologist) is the MD and Co-Founder at The Catalyst Group, Jaipur, India

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