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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Valentini

Mindfulness: your secret weapon against anxiety and depression

Despite coming from the ancient Buddhist tradition, the term “mindfulness” has recently made its way into our Western lifestyle, causing some confusion in many heads. You might hear this term used in all kinds of contexts: from your super stressed colleague at work chatting about how he lately has been using mindfulness practices to avoid killing your boss, to your yoga teacher asking you - for the tenth time - to be mindful about your breathing. And now maybe even your therapist might want to teach you how to live a more mindful life. But what does mindfulness actually mean and why should you care?


“Mindfulness” has its roots in ancient Buddhist practices and is the western translation of the Pali word sati. If neither sati nor mindfulness really mean anything to you, you could try to understand this as “clear awareness” (Harris, 2014) or as “conscious presence” (Nhat Hahn, 1999).

Basically, it's all about paying attention to what is happening right here, right now, without getting lost in your thoughts. (Test: how many times were you distracted by a random thought while reading this?). In other words, when you are asked to practice mindfulness, you want to notice your thoughts, feelings, sensations and what's going on around you without getting judgy or analytical about it.


But let’s hear how the big minds of our century have tried to explain mindfulness.

One respected personality that talks a lot about mindfulness is Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher. In his book "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion," he dives into mindfulness and how it can help us understand our minds better. If I could try to simplify his words, mindfulness is the action of stepping back and watching your thoughts without getting sucked into them, being instead able to observe them as mere “objects of your consciousness”.

Joseph Goldstein, US meditation teacher, talks about mindfulness as a way to of cultivating wisdom and compassion. What does it mean you ask? Well, Goldstein says mindfulness isn't just about being in the moment—it's about how we treat ourselves and others. Being kind and accepting, even when things get tough, can make a big difference in how we feel about ourselves (self-worth) and about others (compassion), two key elements for a rich and fulfilling life.


Now, let’s look at how mindfulness can be helpful for you, psychologically.

Research has shown that mindfulness is effective in alleviating symptoms such as stress, anxiety, and even depression. For instance, one study conducted in 1992 by Kabat-Zinn and his team found that mindfulness is able to lower anxiety and depression in individuals affected by chronic pain.


But how do we apply mindfulness during therapy? Picture this: there's this person, let's call them Mr. D, who is dealing with a ton of stress and anxiety. He is always worrying about the future and beating himself up, overthink his every little mistake. He finally decides to see a psychologist for help. Instead of just talking about problems at a rational level, the therapist introduces Mr. D. to mindfulness techniques. Over time, he learns to notice when his thoughts start spiraling and to bring himself back to the present moment, avoiding overthinking, negativity, and possibly all other symptoms that might follow, like insomnia, anxiety or depression. Together with the therapist, he tries different methods and finds one that really helps him ground himself and alleviate the burden of his overthinking mind. By training and practicing consistently, Mr. D. starts feeling calmer and more in control of his emotions, being more and more able to break free from the cycle of stress and anxiety, thanks to mindfulness.


You could also give it a try! If you like, you could try a very simple mindfulness exercise right now, to have a taste of what mindfulness is. This method is called the "5-4-3-2-1" technique:


Step 1. Start by taking a few deep breaths. Notice if you are paying attention to the present moment or if you are lost in thoughts or daydreaming.


Step 2. Look around and identify the following items, in order, and with as many details as you can.


   - 5 things you can see: Notice and name in your head five different objects or elements in your surroundings. Pay attention to their colors, shapes, and textures.


   - 4 things you feel at a physical level or perceive on your skin: Focus on four things you can physically touch. It could be the texture of your clothing, the sensation of your feet on the ground, or the warmth of your hands. How does it feel? Describe it in your mind with 1 or 2 adjectives.


   - 3 things you can hear: Listen for three distinct sounds in your environment. It could be the hum of a fan, the chirping of birds, or the sound of traffic outside.


   - 2 things you can smell: Take a moment to notice any scents around you. It might be the aroma of food cooking, the freshness of flowers, or the scent of your surroundings. Remember: It is the effort that counts! If your nose is closed or there are not smells around, that is ok. Still, give it a fair try.


   - 1 thing you can taste: Finally, notice one taste in your mouth. It could be the lingering flavor of a recent meal, a sip of water, or the taste of toothpaste if you've recently brushed your teeth.


Step 3. As you go through each sense, take a moment to fully experience each sensation without judgment or analysis. Allow yourself to be fully present in the moment.


This exercise helps to anchor your awareness in the present moment and can be practiced anytime, anywhere to cultivate mindfulness and reduce stress.


So, why is mindfulness such a big deal in psychology? Well, it turns out it's pretty handy for dealing with all sorts of mental health issues. From anxiety and depression to trauma and addiction, mindfulness can help people cope better with their emotions and thoughts. Plus, it's not just for when things go wrong—it can also boost resilience and improve overall well-being.


In a nutshell, mindfulness is all about being here, right now, and being ok with whatever comes up, positive and negative. It's a simple practice with some serious benefits, backed by ancient wisdom and modern science.


If you're interested in incorporating mindfulness into your life and need professional guidance, consider consulting with a psychological counsellor in Zurich or even an online psychological counsellor that has expertise in minfulness-based psychological approaches. These professionals can provide personalized support and strategies to help you effectively manage your mental health and enhance your overall well-being.


Literature for further readings:

- Harris, Sam (2014) Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

- Goldstein, Joseph (2013) Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

- Nhat Hanh, Thich (1999) Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation

- Kabat- Zinn, John et all. (1992) Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

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