It’s something my mom always tells me. She says it when I leave for school. She texts it to me when I get in the car.
My response to which was usually “Ok mom, I will,” without a second thought; it just became a habit. I always just assumed she was reminding me to pay attention, to be polite, and to not text and drive.
Then 2020 hit, and like everything else in the world, my perspective on mindfulness completely changed.
What is mindfulness and why is it so relevant now?
Mindfulness is a state of hyperawareness, where one is truly conscious and present in the current moment. Nichole Allen, my mother: a psychotherapist from whom my passion for mindfulness derives, very eloquently says, “Anxiety lives in the future. Depression lives in the past. Mindfulness lives in the present- in the here and now.”
Mindfulness is always relevant, but there’s nothing like a pandemic to help you check your state of mind and prioritize your mental health. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V includes criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) such as compulsive “apprehensive expectation” which causes “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” The phrase “apprehensive expectation” aligns with my mother’s statement that “anxiety lives in the future.” Some criteria from the DSM-V for depression are as follows: depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, fatigue, loss of pleasure, etc.
I know from personal experience that the isolation from several months of a state-wide lockdown and the stress of my displacement from an apartment with my best friends to my small town, crammed in my house with my family 24/7, escalated my own symptoms of depression and anxiety. And I consider myself lucky, for I had the privilege of not having to fear for my own or my loved ones’ lives due to this virus. I cannot even imagine the stress others have had to endure this year.
So in my most overwhelming moments, I would practice mindfulness. Actively redirecting attention to the present moment helps to take away from the stress of what might happen in the future. And this truly is an active process; to be mindful one has to do some real cognitive reframing. Cognitive reframing is the process of changing perspective, attitude, or mood through changing meaning. One has to cognitively reframe their situation and hopefully redirect their attention from past and future worries to the present moment. Often in my own episodes of anxiety or depression, I’m literally laying in bed alone. If I can acknowledge these moments I can begin to practice mindfulness and take myself out of the hypotheticals and the past.
I asked my mom to tell me a bit more about mindfulness. Here’s what she wanted to share:
“Mindfulness is like an intentional awareness; for example, focusing on what you see, hear, smell, feel, etc, in the immediate moment. It can be very grounding, very calming, and that state is necessary before the mind is able to process reasoning or reframing. Imagine you are feeling very anxious or sad – all you can think about or focus on is the source of your pain; that can be very consuming. Practicing mindfulness exercises helps to slow the breathing, diverts focus to the surrounding environment, and may even foster gratitude – an entire change in perspective – and that’s kind of the epitome of mindfulness when you think about it. If you’re mindful, you’re living in the present moment; with intentionality, your eyes are open to more things, beautiful things. I spend a lot of time practicing mindfulness exercises with my clients.”
Go through all of your five senses and make observations. During quarantine, when my mom and I would take our daily evening walk, she filled me in on this strategy. I went down the list of senses, and asked myself: “What do you see?” I saw pink flower petals from a cherry blossom tree twirling to the pavement sidewalk. “What do you smell?” I smell burning wood from a bonfire in a neighboring yard. “What do you hear?” I hear my Nike zoom sneakers shuffling beneath me; I’ve never been one to lift my feet quite high enough. I think you get the idea. My mom says, “Being mindful is grounding. When you take the time to use all the senses it’s kind of like breathing or counting. It distracts you from the source of discomfort”.
There is also a therapeutic practice called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which employs mindfulness. In ACT, “Clients learn to stop avoiding, denying, and struggling with their inner emotions and, instead, accept that these deeper feelings are appropriate responses to certain situations that should not prevent them from moving forward in their lives.” I mentioned my personal struggle with anxiety and depression over the past several months. These negative emotions were exacerbated when I would ruminate, alone, and guilt would consume me. Why am I so ungrateful? I would think, I have such an amazing family… I am so privileged… I have no right to feel this way. But I did have a right to feel that way. My mother always emphasizes the importance of allowing her clients to experience their feelings, and she’d “hold space” for them. She says, “In our practice, we ‘hold space’ for people. That means no matter what, we allow space in our hearts; we sit with them empathetically and without judgment.”
Participate in a meditation video. I often use this one to slow down my mind so I can fall asleep. My personal favorite is “Meditate Deep Sleep Release” by Calm. All it took was one restless 4 am Google search to stumble across this video, and it was game-changing. Meditation and mindfulness often go hand in hand, for both require you to slow down and they bring you to the present moment. I love these meditation videos because they direct attention to the breath and to the sensations of the body. In this video specifically, you are guided to breathe deeply and slowly, and to move from your toes to your head, tightening and releasing your muscles. This entails the intentionality I mentioned earlier. You are physically letting go of tension, and that helps your mind let go of discomfort as well. I usually just do a quick Google or YouTube search and select a meditation video that fits my schedule. When I’m pressed on time, it’s nice to have the option of a 5-10 minute reset.
Perform some type of physical activity. Yoga and HIIT workouts are always great, but even simply taking a brisk walk or stepping away from your screen to do some squats is enough to get the endorphins going. Exercising will, at least temporarily, relieve your mind of whatever burden you’re carrying. The endorphins your brain releases, while you get moving, will not only put you in a better mood, but it will prime your mind for more effective working and learning. I often put on a light-hearted podcast and take a 30-minute walk in the morning for an optimal start to my day.
Take breaks throughout your day to do something you love. For me it’s drinking coffee and listening to music; there’s nothing like a little caffeine buzz with the Neighbourhood “Wiped Out!” album. If you’re really in a time crunch, I’ve found that listening to John Mayer or “Let’s Fall in Love for the Night” radio on Spotify actually helps me to be more productive. But it doesn’t have to be espresso and tunes – hanging out with a pal, doing some creative writing, or even taking a nap will suffice. All that is necessary is for you to intentionally put aside time in your crazy schedule to focus on yourself and do something that will make you happy.
This year has been quite stressful, and pretty detrimental to mental health. It is so easy to find yourself caught up in the rabbit-hole of anxiety and negativity, but you are not alone and it will get better. This world has survived economic and political crises as well as plagues; please do not lose hope! My mother tells me, “Even in the midst of chaos and crisis, LOOK for beauty… and you will find it”.