As the nation has become plagued with overwhelming levels of stress and increasing rates of burnout, mindfulness has become an ever-popular topic of discussion as an effective means of alleviating these tensions in various professions. Mindfulness has also become widely utilized in occupational therapy (OT) practices as a tool to enhance occupational engagement and has even been integrated in OT education to help future practitioners manage the stressors of their personal and professional lives. While numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits and effectiveness of mindfulness, the practice still bears quite a bit of uncertainty and lack of understanding among many. The questions that arise are: what is exactly is mindfulness and why practice it? And, once we understand it, how can we then integrate it into our and our clients’ daily lives?
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is rooted in Eastern traditions and has been practiced for thousands of years. More recently, the practice has been brought to the West, with large influence from Jon Kabat-Zin, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs. Mindfulness, as defined by Kabat-Zin, is “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” and, as mentioned in this talk, is “about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.”
Mindfulness has been shown to achieve a wide array of benefits among a diverse range of populations, making it a useful tool for clients or for yourself. Looking to decrease stress? Ease anxiety? Fight depression? Bolster relationships? Improve sleep? Increase focus and attention? Mindfulness may be a solution.
How to Cultivate Mindfulness
Now, we are not monks living in the calms of nature, with opportunity to meditate hours upon hours without interruption. The fact that mindfulness is so often associated with this image, can leave us intimidated and believing a truly mindful state is unattainable. Because, let’s face it – our reality is that we live in a busy, hectic world, where our daily schedules consist of balancing (or at least maintaining our best attempts at balancing) important commitments such as work, school, families, and health. With all the pieces constantly moving and being a part of a future-oriented society, it sometimes feels impossible to be still and practice living in the present – especially without feeling the guilt of “lost” productivity. In floods stress and burnout.
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The good news? Mindfulness is a practice, and even small amounts of practice can have large and lasting impact on our wellbeing. Here are a few tips of how to begin cultivating mindfulness into daily life, by taking advantage of the little moments in life we often pass by without much, if any, thought:
When it comes to mindfulness, meditation is often the first association that comes to mind. Finding 5-10 minutes of your 1,440 minutes in a day shouldn’t be that difficult – yet somehow, it is. In the fast-paced world we live in, the trick is finding a peaceful space and time to practice – whether that’s in the parked car before or after you leave for work, in an outdoor quiet space you can escape to on a lunch break, or in that chair in the corner of your bedroom first thing you do when you get up or last thing you do before you get to bed. Set a reminder for yourself and schedule those meditation minutes in.
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But, if meditating isn’t your thing, or you feel you don’t have the time to add in an extra step to your routine, there are other simple ways to practice mindfulness with the occupations you already do.
We’re all human…which means we all breathe. Start by bringing attention to your breath throughout various moments in your day – during your commute, at your desk, in moments of stress, and in moments of calm. Pay attention to the physical sensations as your breath flows in and out of your body. Notice the rise and fall of your chest or belly with each inhale and exhale.
Mindful breathing can also be particularly helpful during stressful times. See these moments of stress as an opportunity to practice mindfulness: breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold that breath in your belly for a count of two, and exhale through pursed lips for a count of six. Practice for 15 breaths. Feel more relaxed?
Eating in Peace
Busy lives often call for multi-tasking, and eating is often a task that gets paired with another as a means of saving time. Eating as you run out the door on a busy morning, eating at your desk as you finish up emails, eating as you watch your favorite TV show – we’ve all done it, and if I were to guess, we all probably do it more often than not. However, I encourage you to step away from your computer, shut off the TV, and try eating without distraction. (Even just once this week if that’s all you can manage.) Look at the food in front of you and see the colors and textures. Smell the aroma wafting from your plate. Feel the temperature of the food in your mouth and distinguish between all the unique flavors. Hear the crunch as you chew. Fully appreciate and enjoy the food that is nourishing your body!
Walking with Attention
This one is similar to mindful eating, in that you fully engage all senses. Next time you go for a walk, start to attend to the various inputs you are receiving. Whether you’re indoors or outside, you are bound to be surrounded by environments that stimulate your touch, smell, visual, and sound sensations. Notice the feel of your feet rolling on and off the soft carpet floor, the sound of the breeze blowing through trees, the image of the blue sky peeking through the window, the smell of the fresh rainfall on the asphalt. There are so many things that go walked by unnoticed – by intentionally attending to your surroundings and sensations, you may also find micro-moments that bring you joy.
What are other ways you can bring mindfulness into daily life? Please tell us in the comments below.
Brynne Terry, MA, OTR/L completed her B.A. in Human Performance and her M.A. of Occupational Therapy at the University of Southern California, and is currently pursuing her Doctorate of Occupational Therapy at Boston University. Her passion is promoting health and wellness through lifestyle management, the practice of self-care, and education on the impact of daily habits and routines on immediate and long-term health.