A number of patients come in to my office with fears and worries related to possible future events. What if this happened, or what about this possibility. While worrying and thinking about the future can be adaptive and useful as it helps us to plan and prepare, a fine line exists between the utility of worrying and the point at which it becomes maladaptive.
Worrying until sickness
Maladaptive worries trigger anxiety, and sometimes also depression in many people. We can physically respond to this anxiety by becoming tense, over or under eating, having trouble breathing, difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, begin to feel sick or in some cases, experience a panic attack.
Many health professionals and articles you read related to anxiety focus on the physical ramifications of anxiety and offer strategies such as exercise and deep breathing as effective coping mechanisms.
However there is another side effect of anxiety that often gets overlooked: if you are constantly concerned about what can happen in the future, are you fully appreciating what is happening right now? Are you present in the moment? Are you enjoying experiences with family and friends? What are you missing out on by not being fully aware in the moment that you are in?
Coping with the anxiety and allowing yourself to fully enjoy the present moment will allow you to be a better parent, partner, employee and friend. But that is easier said then done. How do you stay in the moment when your mind is racing with thoughts about other things?
What if I can’t pay my bills on time? What if the people at the party think I don’t belong there? I have so many things to do tomorrow….
Mindfulness as moment catcher
This is where the concept of mindfulness comes in. The idea of mindfulness has its root in meditation and involves “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.”
Here’s a simple, classic example of mindfulness: think about how long it would take you to eat a single raisin, kernel of popcorn or cherry tomato. Most people would never only eat a single item of these foods; if they did, it would take mere seconds to chew and swallow.
The practice of mindfulness is often taught while eating a single raisin, where the activity is drawn out as long as possible.
The individual may be instructed to look at the ridges of the raisin, and how the color of the skin differs as the light hits it in different places. The individual may taste the skin of the raisin before biting into it. Once bitten, the person would be asked to describe the differences between the taste and texture of the raisin’s skin versus the taste and texture of the inside.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Studies have shown that mindfulness has a number of positive benefits on emotional and physical health. That includes lowering stress and anxiety levels, pain management, depressive symptoms and insomnia. Using mindfulness strategies while eating have also been linked to overall better eating habits and weight loss. This article summarizes 20 scientific studies that have found positive benefits of practicing mindfulness.
How can you put mindfulness to use?
If you are so stressed about tomorrow’s to-do list, are you enjoying the relaxing shower that you are taking? Try thinking about the smell of the soap and the feel of the warm water on your skin.
If you worry about how people perceive you in an upcoming social situation, are you enjoying playing with your dog? Try thinking about the feel of the dog’s fur. Try to sense the texture of his nose as he rubs it against you.
Be sure you are breathing slowly and deeply.
Other ways to practice: while washing dishes, eating lunch, taking a walk, dusting – any activity will work. Try to engage as many senses as you can. While practicing mindfulness, it is normal for your mind to wander. Do not judge the interrupting thoughts, just slowly bring your mind back to your practice and start again.
Below are links to scripts to help you start your mindfulness practice: