Alleviate Your Anxiety and Depression with Mindfulness
- Category: Depression
- June 29, 2023
Noticing the ebb and flow of sharp pain in the lower back, noticing feeling distracted by everyday worries, and noticing feelings/thoughts of dread are all successful mindfulness meditation practices. The overall goal is to NOTICE what the mind, heart, and body are doing without getting too caught up in interpretations, judgments, or conceptualizations. Experiencing the separation between the Observer self and our habitual thought patterns is central. Therefore, the fact that you are noticing anything about the mind, body, or heart is progress. We all have an Observer within. The Observer can be reached and strengthened through mindfulness and meditation.
What is Mindfulness?
First, let’s define what we are talking about here. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention on purpose, without judgment, in the present moment. Let’s look at each of these components.
Paying Attention on Purpose: To some extent, we know that we can direct our attention. While driving we may tune into someone crossing the street as we wait to turn right, for example. However, we also know that our attention can be pulled to things without conscious intention. For example, we pick up our phone to check our e-mail, and before we know it, we have been scrolling for 30 minutes. At the center of Mindfulness is directing the attention consciously. In other words, making choices about what we focus on versus being at the mercy of subconscious processes. Paying Attention On Purpose is a practice. It is repetitive and tedious, especially at first. The mind will wander, and it is our job to redirect our mind back to what we want to focus on. During meditation, we may choose to focus on the breath, sounds, or bodily sensations. In everyday life, we may want to focus on a song we are listening to, a task we are completing, or playing with a child. In all instances, the aim is to disengage from our thoughts and narratives in the mind and see for ourselves what our experience is like right now.
Without Judgement: It seems to me that within each mind there are reoccurring themes. Some of us are preoccupied by fears of abandonment, others are subconsciously convinced that threats to safety lurk at every turn. Our critical self-talk often directly relates to whichever themes we have identified with over our lifetime. For example, if I am preoccupied by feeling inadequate, as my mind wanders off during a meditation practice I may notice self-talk like: “Wow, you can’t even do this right! What’s the point of this anyway? This whole thing is a waste of time!” All of these statements are judgmental and reactive; they are stories the mind tells that encompass the theme of fearing inadequacy. I am essentially labeling my experience as bad/wrong and I am subtly labeling myself as inadequate. A Nonjudgmental response looks like: “I got caught up in my thoughts again, now I will bring my mind back to this moment.” Nonjudgment embodies the tone of a neutral Observer. Simply noticing without resisting what already is here.
In the Present Moment: Some would say that the present moment is all that is real. The past is gone and the future has not yet happened. And interestingly, the present moment is, in itself, ever-changing. When we practice mindfulness, it often helps to find an anchor to bring our attention back to. Something that can root us in the present moment. Many people will use the breath. Other practices include focusing attention on bodily sensations, sounds, and the experience of walking. As we pay attention, on purpose, without judgment, we will notice that whichever anchor we choose is ever-changing, just as the present moment. The sound of the fan, though it sounds uniform, contains spontaneous sputters. The breath quickens for a few moments when our attention is pulled toward a sharp pain in the body. The goal is to really see what is going on right now and to disengage from our preconceived notions of what we anticipate could be going on right now. We often assume that the stories in our minds are reflecting reality. However, this is rarely the case. Through mindfulness and meditation practices, you will see this for yourself.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a word used to mean various things. Within this post, I am defining meditation as an intentional practice of concentrating on something specific in order to increase the capacity to direct one’s attention, disengage from one’s thoughts/narratives, and increase awareness of what is actually happening in reality. Within this definition, mindfulness is a component of meditation.
So… how do we use mindfulness and meditation practices to combat Anxiety and Depression?
If we boil it down, anxiety and depression have a few things in common. In both, emotions and bodily sensations that we do not like arise (e.g. chest tightness, a sense of heaviness), and our mind interprets our emotions and sensations. The mind comes up with repetitive stories (e.g. “What if it all goes wrong?” or “Nothing I do matters.”). And these repetitive stories then feed the emotions we do not like, and the cycle continues.
In both cases, our internal narratives are outdated notions we developed in the past and/or guesses about the future that are based on our insecurities and fears. Neither of these is necessarily relevant right now. Tune in and notice this. You are not being harmed right now. Disaster is not ensuing right now. A crucial step to increasing motivation, letting go of bodily tension, sleeping better, and improving our mood is to disengage from the fearful possibilities and the memories of how our life has been unfair up until this point.
Interestingly, the suffering you are enduring right now is an invitation to disengage from the thoughts and stories that perpetuate the suffering. In each moment, there is the opportunity to observe the mind and its stories versus identifying with these repetitive and unhelpful narratives.
You may think: “Yes, but, my life has been so hard and it is so unfair.” Without you speaking this sentiment, I already know this is true for you. I know this is true because the nature of this life is a series of challenges and obstacles to encourage growth. Life is not here to comfort, soothe, or coddle. Yes, it is true, your life has had many hardships and it has not been fair. Take some deep breaths right here. We are all connected by this life truth.
At first, some of the relevant concepts that are within mindfulness and meditation practices are disorienting. Our minds have been subscribing to a different reality through our individual conditioning (i.e. our experiences, interpretations, culture, internalizations, upbringing, etc.). So, if we want to connect with our immediate reality versus the reality portrayed in the mind, where do we start?
There are enormous benefits to both ‘informal’ and ‘formal’ mindfulness/meditation practices.
- Look up meditation practices on YouTube and see what resonates with you. Tune into that part of you that is resonating with the practice and disengage from the doubt, restlessness, resistance, etc. that the mind conjures up. In other words, bring the resonating part to the foreground and allow the resistance to fall to the background.
- In everyday life, observe what is actually happening, acknowledge it, and ask yourself, now what? The present circumstance already is. It is pointless to argue with what already is. However, once we acknowledge what is already here, we can ask ourselves “Now what?” and pivot. (This practice helps us to decrease the amount of time/energy we use in arguing with what is already here and promotes change in our lives.)
- Adjust your expectations and re-evaluate your expectations frequently. Again, this life does not inherently bring us ease, peace, and comfort. Instead, this life ebbs and flows. We reach moments of ease and joy, followed by an obstacle, followed by relief, followed by a loss. Persistent challenges and obstacles are inevitable and nonnegotiable in this life. I know you know this. You would not be reading this unless you have suffered and felt the inevitability of hardship. The notion that “life should not be this difficult” is inaccurate and increases our resistance to reality, which then increases suffering. You can consciously redefine your expectations right now.
- In everyday life notice when the mind is grasping for more. Right after you finish a cup of coffee, is the mind seeking more even when the body may have had enough? When there is a moment of silence, is the mind reaching for something to fill the seeming emptiness? The mind is often either grasping or avoiding. Notice this and experiment with spending a few moments, minutes, and eventually hours in this empty space. (P.S. Though the mind often conceptualizes this space as emptiness, we can also choose to conceptualize it as spaciousness.)
- In everyday life, when you are in a rush, see if you can tune into the stories your mind is telling you. What catastrophe does the mind say will ensue if you do not meet the deadline? Notice the ways our expectations for the self-set us up for ‘failure’ or disappointment.
Letting go of our thoughts and stories is often painful. At least a portion of the pain comes from the subconscious process of identifying with these stories. In other words, we believe that our internal stories define who we are, they become our sense of identity. For example, if I have experienced mistreatment from others regularly, (e.g. losing a job under unfair circumstances, abandonment by a parent, or being taken advantage of by several romantic partners), I may subconsciously develop an identity as a victim. I repeat the stories from the past and will not trust anyone. I assume my needs will never be met. These beliefs inform my behavior and I subconsciously seek out information from my environment that supports my beliefs. I feel depressed and alone.
However, mindfulness/meditation offers a direct path toward de-identifying with the mind’s narratives and developing a more fluid sense of self that can ground into right now. In sum, the first step is to locate the Observer within and to practice taking the perspective of the Observer when accessible. The second step often develops naturally where the Observer enters the foreground of the mind and is accessible more and more often. The old stories and pain will likely remain to some extent, though it often moves to the background. When the stories and pain are in the background, they no longer have as much access to making our decisions or determining our moods. Instead, the Observer self can get in touch with what is really going on right now and we can go from there.
Are you ready to teach the mind new tricks? We all have the opportunity to develop a different way of observing and experiencing our lives. Over time, grounding right here grants us the freedom and relief we have been seeking.