Have you tried practicing mindfulness only to find that you can’t relax and your mind won’t stop thinking? Chances are you’re doing it right. Mindfulness isn’t just about feeling relaxed or stopping your thoughts, it’s about being aware of our experiences in the present. So what is the difference between relaxation, distraction, and mindfulness? And how do I know if I’m doing it “right”?
Last week’s Wellness Wednesday feature was about the costs of stress. Mindfulness was mentioned as one way to cope. These days, everyone seems to be talking about mindfulness. But what is it? First, let’s discuss the differences between distraction, relaxation, and mindfulness.
When teaching stress management classes, I ask participants what they do to relax. Responses are often things people enjoy doing, such as going fishing, reading a book, or playing with a pet. While these things may help us take our minds off our problems, I classify them as distraction rather than relaxation.
Distraction is anything that takes our minds off internal experiences (thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, memories) from which we want to escape. It can be quite effective in the short-term, but the effects are only temporary.
Examples of distraction include:
- Talking to people
- Riding a motorcycle
- Creating artwork
- Taking pictures
- Watching television, movies, or sports
- Playing games
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Active relaxation is a form of distraction. But the purpose is not just to distract the mind, but also to cause a physiological change in the body.
Relaxation techniques help to deactivate the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system) and activate the rest and digest response (parasympathetic nervous system). Effects include taking deeper breaths, slowing our heart rate, and reducing muscle tension.
Examples of relaxation include:
- Diaphragmatic Breathing
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Scanning the Body for Tension
- Tai Chi
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Just as the heart is always beating, the mind is always thinking. Seldom are we aware of the constant flow of thoughts. Yet much of our stress comes from thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness is a practice in being aware of our experiences in the present.
Mindfulness is different from distraction in that rather than taking our mind away from our inner experiences, we are actually becoming more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
While mindfulness can include some of the same techniques as relaxation, the intention is different. Mindfulness is about becoming aware of what one is experiencing in the present moment.
A mindfulness meditation may have one focus on his or her breath, but (unlike in relaxation) we simply notice how we are breathing, we don’t try to change it. Similarly, a mindfulness meditation may ask one to scan the body and notice any tension. But (unlike in relaxation), we don’t relax those muscles, we simply notice the tension.
Some people may feel relaxed as a side effect of practicing mindfulness, but it may also bring about some discomfort as one becomes aware of their thoughts, emotions, memories, and physical sensations (e.g., pain). Rather than trying to push these inner experiences away, in mindfulness we simply notice they are there. We acknowledge where our minds took us and, without judgement, gently return our focus to the present.
Formal mindfulness practice (through meditation) helps prepare us for implementing mindfulness in our daily lives (informal mindfulness).
Simple, but not easy
As Jon Kabat-Zinn noted, mindfulness may be simple, but it is not necessarily easy. The practice requires effort and attention to thoughts and feelings that we tend to overlook or push away. Through the practice, we may encounter deep emotions including grief, anger, and fear. Yet we may also encounter feelings of joy, happiness, and compassion. Whatever we experience, through mindfulness practice we learn to sit with it rather than get caught up in it.
The metaphor I like to use is the rip tide. If you are swept away by a powerful current, the initial instinct is to try to break away and swim to shore. But the tide is so powerful, we can’t break free. To survive a rip tide we have to flow with the current, rather than swim against it.
“Meditation means learning how to get out of this current, sit in its banks and listen to it, learn from it and then use its energies to guide us rather than tyrannize us.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
While practicing mindfulness, your mind will wander. That’s what it does. You will have to redirect your thoughts back to the focus of your meditation a thousand times. That it normal.
Every time you notice your mind wandering, note where it took you and redirect your attention back to the focus of your meditation.
Examples include mindfulness of:
- Breath: Spend 3-5 minutes just noticing your breath
- Sound: Take a few minutes noticing what you hear
- Thoughts: Notice the next thought you have, then the next
- Body: Slowly scan your body from head to toe. Without feeling the need to change anything, simply notice the feeling of clothes on your skin, the floor beneath you, the bend of your arms and elbows, the position of your hands, the tilt of your head
- Everyday Activities: Take 2 minutes to wash your arm in the shower. Feel the water on your skin and the lather of the soap, notice every curve of your arm, smell the soap
- Eating: Take 5 minutes to eat a raisin or piece of candy. Notice what it looks like, smells like, how it feels in your hand before even brining it to your lips
- The Senses: Name 5 things you see right now, 4 things you hear, 3 things you feel, 2 you smell, and 1 you taste
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Often people think that they “aren’t doing it right” if they have difficulty relaxing or slowing their mind during mindfulness practice. But the fact that they are aware of their tension and their thoughts leads me to believe they are mindful of their experiences.
Distraction, relaxation, and mindfulness can all be helpful coping strategies, but in their own ways. Distraction gives us a temporary break from our stress through engagement in a pleasurable activity, relaxation helps to reduce physical tension, and mindfulness is practice in living in the present. You may not be able to stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.
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Resources on Mindfulness
6 Mindfulness Exercises You Can Try Today by Pocket Mindfulness
Six Mindfulness Exercises that Take Less Than One Minute by Psychology Today
books on Mindfulness
Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery by Linda E. Carlson, PsyD & Michael Speca, PsyD
Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD