by Dr. Karli Ghering

On an average day, how much time do you pay conscious attention to what is happening in the present moment, as opposed to thinking about something else? If you’re like most people, it is probably rare for you to experience clear awareness of the present, as your busy life often requires you to multitask and manage interference from various distractions.

In addition to being bombarded with information from our external environment, we are often distracted by our internal world, as we engage in daydreaming and dwell on thoughts about the past (“I can’t believe I made that embarrassing comment yesterday!”) and the future (“How am I going to get everything done?”).

While these internal and external experiences may seem benign, such thoughts and behaviors activate our sympathetic nervous system, which can trigger an acute stress response and cause us to feel overwhelmed. Accordingly, researchers have investigated methods for reducing this stress response through the practice of mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., who has authored numerous scientific papers on the clinical applications of mindfulness in health care, defines mindfulness as, “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Although the concept of mindfulness is rooted in ancient Zen Buddhism, in recent decades there has been a surge of interest in determining how practicing mindfulness can benefit the physical and mental well-being of individuals. Since humans tend to operate on “auto pilot” as they process information and respond to their environment, it takes a conscious decision to focus the mind on what is happening in the present. Proponents of the practice of mindfulness assert that when individuals are present and mindful, the habits and patterns that cause stress are interrupted and the relaxation response becomes more dominant, resulting in fewer stress hormones being released into the body.

Indeed, several studies have found the effects of mindfulness are associated with various positive psychological effects, including increased subjective well-being, enhanced emotion regulation, and reduced psychological distress. Mindfulness practice is also associated with various physical health benefits, including improved sleep and reduced heart rate, blood pressure, and inflammation.

Most women can relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed, due to our seemingly endless “to-do” lists and the immense pressure to wear several hats. The pressure to be everything to so many can cause us to lose our sense of self—and to forget that we need balance, peace, and time to re-charge. How full is your cup right now?  The practice of mindfulness is about becoming fully engaged in your life, by making a concerted effort to be present with awareness and without distractions or judgments.

Perhaps you are thinking, “This mindfulness stuff sounds great—if only I had time in my day to do it!”  It is important to remember that any big change begins by taking small steps. Realistically, it is impossible for anyone to be mindful all the time, as the human brain is apt to wander and certain situations simply require us to multitask. However, you can begin to integrate mindfulness into your life by setting aside time each day, to intentionally be present. In my clinical practice, I encourage clients to start by allocating just five minutes per day to engage in mindfulness and suggest that they begin with the following mindfulness-to-breath exercise:  

Sit or lie down in a comfortable, quiet place. Notice and relax any areas of tension in your body. Tune in to your breath and feel the sensations of its natural flow, in and out, one breath at a time. Relax, focusing on the sensations in your abdomen, chest, throat, and nostrils, as you inhale and exhale. If your mind begins to wander, allow your thoughts to come and go, without judging, analyzing, or trying to change them, and gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Continue this for at least five minutes, just noticing your breath, in silence.

Admittedly, the practice of mindfulness is somewhat paradoxical, as it is both easy and difficult: while engaging in mindfulness does not require any special equipment and can be done anytime and almost anywhere, the standards of the world we live in and the habits we have developed are generally not conducive to engaging in mindfulness. Therefore, making a deliberate effort to practice mindful observation during everyday activities (e.g., while drinking tea, reading, or driving) is an important and effective step in your ongoing journey to achieve a state of physical and emotional well-being, balance, and peace.   

Dr. Karli Ghering is a licensed clinical psychologist and has practiced in Bismarck for 10 years. Her professional interests include psychological assessment and providing psychotherapy to individuals who are experiencing adjustment difficulties, mood and anxiety disorders, and relationship difficulties.