The concept of mindfulness, and the practice of mindfulness meditation, can be core elements of mental health and are often integrated into effective therapy for many issues, including OCD and Anxiety.
Mindfulness can be described as being aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in the present moment with an open and accepting attitude. It is a radical way of relating to our experiences because our tendency might be to judge, analyze, or avoid them, rather than merely observe them. Most often, mindfulness is taught via mental exercises such as simple meditations practicing awareness, mentally scanning one’s body, and mindful breathing.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to get incorrect ideas about mindfulness which can interfere with one’s ability to understand and apply it well.
Here are five common misconceptions about it, and some important clarifications:
1) “Mindfulness will help me relax”
After spending time meditating and being silently aware, you may feel more relaxed, connected to yourself, and unhooked from anxious thoughts or stress that you are carrying in your body. This can be a great immediate benefit of mindfulness.
However, for some – especially people dealing with panic episodes – being silent and still with one’s thoughts may actually put you more in contact with anxious feelings. This experience is common to people who experience anxiety at nighttime before falling asleep. Ultimately however, as uncomfortable as this is, it’s better in the long term to actively experience some of the thoughts and fears, rather than to avoid them. In addition, just learning to observe and tolerate unpleasant thoughts is a major step towards the essential work of confronting fears and anxieties, as with Exposure with Response Prevention.
2) “It’s too scary to be silent with my own thoughts”
Sometimes it can definitely be uncomfortable, especially if your mind has been gravitating towards intrusive worries, images of a traumatic memory, or negative ideas about yourself. However, as previously mentioned, what will be even more uncomfortable over time is to continually avoid those thoughts. Practicing mindful awareness can help you learn to experience your thoughts as merely thoughts, and feelings as merely feelings – neither of which consistently represent reality in an accurate way.
In fact, with more intentional practice, you’ll likely find that many thoughts floating through your awareness are simply neutral, random nonsense, and others, perhaps more than we realize, are actually pleasant. Either way, the fear of being still with our own mind subsides as we start to see the full range of things that enter our consciousness, and how they come and go. Only by facing our unwanted thoughts and bringing them into awareness are we able to understand and see them in a way that removes their power.
3) “Mindfulness is a technique to master”
I find it more helpful to think of it as a mindset or lifestyle, rather than a technique (My colleague Dr. Jeanette Lantz and I discussed this a bit on Episode 2 of the podcast, Psych Rally. Indeed, there can be something more powerful about the formal practice of mindfulness through meditation, which one could argue is a concrete tool, or “technique.” Experienced meditators also report developing a rhythm to their practice when they have made it a consistent habit.
At the same time, calling mindfulness a “technique” may also discourage people new to it from truly dedicating themselves to practicing it if they believe it will take a long time to benefit from. In reality, mindfulness can also be practiced informally throughout the mundane routine of your typical day, for example, by focusing attention on simple tasks like walking, eating, washing dishes, or brushing your teeth. In the bigger picture, any slice of time lived mindfully is a moment well-lived, and reflects more of a mental attitude towards life than an endeavor to perfect a technique.
4) “Mindfulness is too hard because I get distracted” or “I tried mindfulness but I’m not good at it”
You’re in good company, because everyone has difficulty focusing at times. With experience, seasoned meditators can indeed find it easier to find a place of sustained focus, but it’s helpful to resist the temptation to judge the quality of your mindfulness practice. Even if you simply notice and acknowledge that you feel scattered, you are already practicing mindfulness in a way that fosters a healthy present-moment awareness.
Simply being observant and engaged, rather than mentally disconnected from your experience of the moment – that’s mindfulness, and it’s not something you can really “fail” at. It’s this habit which can help you develop a more compassionate and healthy relationship with your mental experiences.
5) “I don’t have time for mindfulness”
Day, weekend, or week-long (or longer) meditation retreats can be absolutely life-changing. But if you think practicing and benefiting from mindfulness means a major investment in time, money, and travel – think again. The real beauty of mindfulness is that you have it with you at any given time and place. In fact, if you’re reading this now, then right now can be a moment of mindfulness. It can be as simple as:
- Taking one brief, normal breath while actively paying attention to the sensation.
- Noticing and naming shapes and colors around you at any given moment.
- Spending one minute to write out your stream of consciousness without filtering.
- Asking yourself what emotions you might be having right now.
- Simply tuning in briefly to any sensations on one part of your body, such as your feet, or your ears.
- Reading. Each. Word. Slowly. While. Paying. Attention. To. The. Sound. Of. Each. Syllable…
More benefits can follow from very structured awareness, but even these small acts can be a seed of retraining your mind to lean towards present experiences, and cope more effectively with anxious or depressive thoughts. If you’d like to talk this through in more detail, give us a call!
Martin Hsia, Psy.D. is the Assistant Director of CBT SoCal, and specializes in helping people with OCD and Anxiety in Glendale, CA.