Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mindfulness Meditation: Reducing Anxiety by Focusing on the Present Moment

A very cool article on using mindfulness to reduce anxiety, originally posted at Psych Central.

I’m going on my very first cruise in April, and I’m a little worried about the incidental expenses. I’ve heard horror stories from other recent college grads (read: other folks like me who count their pocket change) who’ve gotten huge bills on their final day for alcohol, food, and other services they’d assumed would be free on their (supposedly) all-inclusive vacation.

And last night, appropriately, I dreamed that it cost twenty-five cents to walk through any and all doorways on our cruise ship. I’d walk into the restroom, and I’d be forced to shell out a quarter. I’d walk out, and it would cost another quarter! Quarters for entering and exiting restaurants; quarters for the pleasure of visiting the ice machine or the game room. I needed rolls of quarters in my pockets at all times.

The dream prompted me to think back to the anxiety management class I’d taken in graduate school. It was a semester-long course where we practiced many CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) techniques, including a technique called mindfulness meditation. Put simply, mindfulness is the state of being aware of your surroundings and living in the moment instead of thinking about what just happened or what’s about to happen. It tends to have a calming effect (and I can vouch for this personally) if you’re prone to worrying about the past or the future. You focus on experiences that we tend to overlook day in and day out – the ins and outs of your breath, the way your feet feel as they’re touching the floor, or the quiet hum of the electric lights above you. Things that nobody would ever notice if they weren’t paying attention.

During one class activity, we were each handed a single raisin to eat. First, we had to feel the raisin in our hands. Then, we were instructed to lift it to our lips slowly and then feel the texture of the raisin in our mouths – but without chewing. Then, we concentrated on the taste of the raisin. And (what felt like) a century later, we were finally told to chew it – slowly – and then swallow it. With practice, they told us, this type of mindful eating can bring your awareness into the present during all three meals of the day. Getting into the present moment, they told us, can help you to discard bothersome thoughts & worries.

One week in class, we were presented with a fairly difficult challenge. Sure, it’s easy to sit down at an anxiety management class meeting and practice mindfulness when you’re eating a raisin at a snail’s pace with others who are receptive to the idea of slowing down. But what about when you’re outside of that classroom, darting back and forth between class and your dorm room? How can you be mindful then? Or when you’re competing with every other driver in Insert-Your-City-Here during your morning rush-hour commute? How can you focus on the slow inhale and exhale of your breath? Or when you’re trying to quickly whip up some dinner for you and your hungry family after work? What then? How could you possibly focus on the present moment?

Read the rest of this post.

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