In my experience mindfulness is the precursor to meditation. It requires much less skill than meditation and can be done anywhere and at any time, making it a very valuable tool in mental health recovery. Mindfulness is a mental exercise in which you intentionally hyper focus on the way you are physically experiencing the world in that precise moment, using your 5 senses (smell, taste, sight, sound and touch). This helps you disengage the reactive, fearful, fight-or-flight mode of your brain when in crisis and engage your logical brain to process the thoughts, feelings and emotions you are currently experiencing.
Basically mindfulness helps you realize, “Hey, it’s another panic attack/flashback/etc., but I’m not currently in physical danger and I’m not going to die.” This unfreezes your mind, helping you pull yourself out of the panic attack/flashback/what-have-you so you can effectively focus on redirecting your thoughts. Think of your brain in crisis like a frozen computer or phone. You can’t get the computer to do what you want and it just keeps giving you the same error. So you have to shut it down and reboot it. Mindfulness is like shutting down all the thoughts cycling in your brain in order to reboot with calm, logical thoughts.
Before I get into the exercise itself, I want to stress the importance of practicing the exercise when you are fine and NOT in crisis. You want to get so good at going through the technique that it becomes a knee-jerk reaction as soon as you start thinking of it. The more you practice the less difficult it will be to employ when you are in full blown panic.
Also, the practice I am going to outline was taught to me by my therapist, a PhD clinical psychologist. This technique is not my own and may differ from what you are used to. *This exercise is not meant to take the place of prescribed medication or medical attention in the event of a medical emergency*
In the beginning it is helpful to choose a quiet place to learn the technique, but it isn’t necessary. It may also help to close your eyes, and have a focal object that you can use your 5 senses to interact with (I learned with a raisin).
Now that you are prepared, close your eyes and notice the sounds in the room around you. Can you hear people talking in the next room? Can you hear cars outside? Can you hear the air conditioning running, or the heat? Maybe you can hear the whirring of a ceiling fan or the fan of your computer. Can you hear people walking or moving around? Maybe you hear birds chirping or a dog barking. Can you hear yourself breathing? Is it fast and shallow or slow and deep? Now notice the way you are sitting. Are you slouching or sitting upright? Are you sitting on a hard chair? Do you feel your bones pressing into the seat or back? Maybe you’re sitting on a couch. Notice how soft or firm it is under your weight. You may like to shift your weight to really feel how it is supporting your body. Are you comfortable? Do you have any aches or pains anywhere in your body? Now shift your focus to the focal object in your hands. Roll it in your hands. Does the object roll easily or not? Rub your fingers over its surface. Does it have any grooves or etching? Or is it smooth? Is it grainy and falling apart? Does it feel cool to the touch, or warm? Bring the object near your face. Breathe in deeply through your nose. Does it have a scent? How would you describe the scent? Is it pungent or faint? Does it smell floral or fruity? Or does it smell savory or spicy? Open your eyes. Inspect the object closely. Does it have any defects or damage to it? Is there writing on it? Does it have wrinkles or divets on its surface? Feel the surface as you inspect the object. Really see the object as your fingers move over it. Now close your eyes again. Place the object in your mouth. Do not bite into it, chew it or swallow it. Just let it rest on your tongue. Can you smell it as it sits in your mouth? Is it making your mouth water or does it accentuate any dryness in your mouth or throat? Can you taste it? Now roll it around with your tongue. Is the taste more intense as you move it around? Is the scent more intense? Is it dissolving or falling apart in your mouth? Is moving it causing you to salivate? Now bite into it. What is the texture like? Gummy, crunchy juicy? What is the first flavor you notice? Breathe in and out through your nose as you chew it. Does this intensify or change the experience of the flavor? As you continue to chew it does the flavor change or taste different? Do you feel a desire to swallow and clear your mouth, or could you just keep chewing? When you are ready clear your mouth swallowing or removing the object. Open your eyes. Do you feel more aware of your surroundings and your body? Do you feel more present, mentally and physically, now than you did when you began reading this article? Do you feel calmer and more together?
This is the power of mindfulness. Imagine being able to tap into that every time you start feeling overwhelmed by your thoughts or emotions! With consistent practice outside of crises, you will build your mindfulness muscle so you can flex it when you need it, wherever you are. My therapist advised me to keep oe of those little snack boxes of raisins in my purse so I can practice at random. When you’ve got that mindful feeling down, you won’t need a focal object. Some people don’t need the focal object at all, even in the beginning. That’s another great thing about mindfulness. It’s so flexible you can customize the practice to you once you know how it works and what works best for you. Eventually you won’t even need a prompt like this. You can just think 5 senses, focus on them, notice them and calm will follow. But you MUST practice!
Let me know how the exercise went for you! Comment below! Have you tried mindfulness before? Was it similar to this exercise or totally different? Do you plan to practice this exercise, or did it seem unhelpful? Do you have any mindfulness tips? I’d love to keep the conversation going down in the comments, so if you have any questions ask ‘em and I’ll meet you down in the comments to help you out!