By Dr. Katie Boyd
As Yoga & Spa readers, you likely are familiar with mindfulness practice and its benefits. It’s probably not lost on you the deep relaxation you feel after that glorious Savasana. At the end of a yoga practice, you’ve essentially completed an hour-and-a-half long mindfulness practice. You’ve (ideally) left your worries outside the room and focused solely on your body movements as they occurred in the present moment. But maybe you haven’t considered exactly why these types of mindful activities relax us or help to decrease anxiety or improve mood.
So how exactly does mindfulness help decrease anxiety or improve mood? The answer is multifaceted, involving both physiological and psychological processes. But let’s focus on the psychological processes. This requires some meta-cognition— thinking about your thinking. Stop for a minute and consider how much of your typical mental energy is spent thinking about the past or the future. Our mental energy is almost constantly running over events from the past (“I can’t believe I said that!”) or the future (“I don’t know what I’m going to do if…”) rather than focusing on what we are doing in the present moment. While this is very commonplace, it leaves us mentally checked-out to the past or future, causing us to live our present-moment lives on autopilot. Our bodies go on completing tasks in the present while our minds aren’t with us. This “mind-LESS-ness” often leads to errors, forgetting things or even clumsiness. People with significant anxiety may tend to be future-focusers, whereas people who tend to ruminate about the past may experience more depression.
Mindfulness practice is a tool to bring our minds to the present moment, focused on what we are doing or what is happening right here, right now. This present-focus allows us to fully engage and check-in with each moment, rather than going through the motions on autopilot. In our busy, modern lives, it is unrealistic to think one can be mindful 100% of the time. Of course, we have to think about the past and the future at times. But when we add in some moments throughout our days of focusing on the here and now, we find more moments of peace, relaxation, and calm. In part, this is because the past may be a minefield of memories that conjure emotions of guilt, shame, regret or anger. And the future may produce anxiety, worry or fear of the unknown. But this exact moment, right here, right now? Most of the time THIS moment is okay, not producing any significant emotion.
In addition to mindfulness helping us stay focused on the present moment, mindfulness practice has the benefit of helping us tame negative thought spirals by being more aware of our thoughts and increasing our ability to focus attention where we want it to be. I often describe mindfulness practice as the “mental weightlifting” to improve our ability to focus attention and let go of unwanted thoughts. Just like you’d hit the gym for bicep curls if you wanted bigger muscles, regular mindfulness practice can strengthen your “mental muscle” of the ability to focus attention on thoughts you want to have (positive, affirming thoughts) and let go of unwanted, negative thoughts. Each time you practice returning your thoughts to the present moment during mindfulness practice, you’ve just completed a sort of “mental bicep curl.” Do enough reps and your mental muscle will be stronger to focus attention where you want it to be and to let go of unwanted thoughts.
Dr. Katie Boyd is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in private practice in St. Louis, MO. Dr. Boyd specializes in individual therapy with adults, with a focus on treating anxiety. Visit her website www.stlouisanxietypsychologist.com for more information.