Invite Kind Attention In

In an excerpt from their new book, The Mindful Way Through Anxiety, Susan M. Orsillo, Ph.D, and Lizabeth Roemer, Ph.D discuss developing the skills of mindfulness in order to bring kind attention into your daily life. 

Photo © Colourbox.com

Weaving mindfulness practice into your daily activities will weaken the hold anxiety has on your life and allow you to life more freely and fully. But most people find it extremely challenging to invite in frightening worries and uncomfortable physical sensations with an open heart. Cultivating a mindful stance towards one's private experiences is a process that often requires taking a radically new view of anxiety and other emotions while at the same time practicing some of the most essential skills of mindfulness. That's why we start with building and strengthening the foundation skills of mindfulness in everyday, neutral, even boring situations. Once you can do that, using mindfulness in anxiety-provoking or distressing situations becomes much easier.

You might think of the practices in this chapter as the drills and workouts athletes do to prepare for games, where a range of skills needs to be applied more flexibly. And in the same way that these basketball or football practices confer benefits beyond more skillful play on the court or field, you'll see the multiple benefits of mindfulness well before you begin using it in highly stressful situations. A wealth of research has demonstrated that practicing mindfulness can improve sleep, reduce physical pain, boost immune system functioning, and increase relationship satisfaction, to name just a few benefits.

Research has shown that mindfulness practice can help to decrease:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Stress
  • Risk of coronary heart disease
  • Substance use
  • Urges to smoke
  • Relapse into depression
  • Chronic pain
  • Symptoms of fibromyalgia

Research has also shown that mindfulness practice can help to improve:

  • Quality of life
  • Relationship satisfaction and closeness
  • Sexual functioning
  • Attention
  • Immune system functioning
  • Skin clearing among those with psoriasis
  • Diabetes self-management
  • Longevity and health among nursing home residents

Regularly practicing mindfulness can reduce the overall level of  stress and anxiety in your life, making it easier to deal with challenges that arise. Another general benefit of mindfulness is that it brings us more closely in touch with the moments of our lives. Practicing mindfulness can transform even the most mundane experiences into cherished moments.

Mindfulness practice can be either formal or informal. Formal practice involves setting aside dedicated time to practice skills on a regular basis. Informal practice involves bringing mindful attention to your internal experiences and your surroundings as you go about your daily activities. Both can help you develop mindfulness skills, in the same way that an athlete benefits from both speed- or strength-building work and scrimmaging.

Beginning a Formal Mindfulness Practice

Formal mindfulness practices are activities that require setting aside some time to practice every day or a few days a week. Mindfulness of breath is considered a formal practice, as are meditation and yoga. Formal practices require you to commit to investing some time in taking care of yourself–no eay feat, given the demands on our time and the pressure to be productive. But formal practices can be extremely beneficial in helping us learn firsthand about the ways our minds work.

Research has demonstrated a correlation between regularly practicing mindfulness and benefiting from it, so we recommend that you commit to spending at least 5 to 10 minutes a day in formal practice. If you want to do more, great. Many people find that a regular mindfulness practice of 15, 25, or 45 minutes is extremely helpful. If you want to do less, we completely understand. And yet we would still ask you to consider making this commitment to yourself. It's OK if it feels uncomfortable because it's not something you usually do, or you're not sure it will help, or it feels like a waste of time. In our experience, it's much easier to make an accurate judgment about whether formal mindfulness practice can benefit you once you've given it a serious try.

Regular formal practice of mindfulness can help us develop this skill so we can use it in our lives. Just like any new habit we try to develop (flossing our teeth, exercising regularly, eating healthily), it's very challenging to add something new to our lives. The more we can make something part of a regular routine, and do it the same way every day, the more likely we are to establish a habit we can keep going throughout our lives.

Tips for Starting a Regular Formal Mindfulness Practice

1. Pick a specific time of day for your practice.

It's often useful to tie practice to daily activities. So, first thing in the morning, just after your morning shower, before or after lunch, before or after dinner, or before bed is a good option for establishing this new habit.

2. Pick a specific place.

If possible, pick a place where you aren't likely to be interrupted.

Using the corner of a room or facing a wall can be a way to make a space when no separate space is available.

Sometimes it can help to put specific things in this space, like pictures on the wall, incense or burning candles, soothing music, or gentle lighting to create an atmosphere that will be associated with your practice. These items become cues for mindfulness practice in the future, helping to strengthen your developing habit.

 3. Use a timer or an alarm (like on a cell phone) so that you can set the time of your practice and not have to track the time.

The most important thing is that you practice for the full time that you intend to, so it's better to practice for 5 minutes and stay for the full 5 minutes than to plan to practice for 15 minutes but stop after 12. Part of the practice is sticking to the intention no matter how many thoughts and impulses to stop arise.

For those who have never tried mindfulness, we often recommend beginning with 5 or 10 minutes of practice and then lengthening the practice if you choose to over time. (If 5 minutes is too challenging at first, start with 1 or 2 minutes and then lengthen your practice.) Other people start with longer periods, like 25 or 30 minutes. Choose whichever approach seems more reasonable to you. Again, some regular practice is better than an intention to have a longer practice that is never met. Often it is easier to add 5 to 10 minutes to daily routines than to add a longer period.

4. Make a commitment to yourself to practice daily for at least a week or two.

You (like all of us) have been practicing anxious responding for a long time, so learning new habits will take time and practice. Soon you'll be able to see for yourself how this new practice can help you. But to get to that place, you will need to commit to the practice regularly so you can build up the skill and see its effects.

As with any other life change, it can be challenging to get started on a new habit, but it's satisfying to commit to something and find a way to fit it into our lives.

All of us can benefit from some time set aside for our own well-being. Think of the practice as something you're doing for yourself, which will also help those around you in time.

5. Find strategies to remind yourself of your practice.

Always practicing after an already daily ritual, like brushing your teeth or taking vitamins, can help you remember to practice.

Visual cues, like colored stickers, in visible places can serve as useful reminders. Placing this book where you'll see it first thing in the morning can help you remember to practice in the morning.

Writing practice into calendars is a good way to remember and also to be sure that time is set aside.

6. If you're like us, you'll find that every day you come up with reasons not to practice. This is natural. Notice the thoughts and practice anyway, to see what it feels like to practice even if you don't feel like it or you have a good reason not to do it.

Notice the obstacles that come up–these are probably obstacles that come up in other areas of your life. You might want to start a list of "reasons not to practice" so that you can notice them all and then go ahead and practice anyway.

Remember that practicing will often not be enjoyable or comfortable. The goal of this exercise is to spend time bringing your awareness back each time it wanders. There is no way to do this wrong.

If you miss a day of practice, be kind to yourself about it and recommit to a daily practice.

One of the biggest obstacles to changing any habit is how we respond to any failures in our efforts at behavior change. Anyone who has tried to diet or start an exercise routine or quit smoking knows that "slips" or "lapses" are common. The key to successful behavior change is forgiving yourself for these slips and recommitting to goals. Practice this skill with your mindfulness practice. When you forget to do it, take that as an opportunity to find new ways of remembering for the next day.

7. Monitor your practice.

It can be helpful to track your practice. You can start a notebook and just write down each time you practice how long the practice lasted and anything you noticed that you want to remember.

 


Drs. Orsillo and Roemer have written and published extensively about mindfulness, anxiety, and psychotherapy, and have been involved in anxiety disorders research and treatment for more than 20 years. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, they have spent the last decade developing the treatment approach that is the basis of this book.

Click here to purchase The Mindful Way Through Anxiety (Guilford Press, 2011).

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