How Mindfulness Reduces Anxiety and Depression

meditation

Before explaining mindfulness let's experience it with a short visualization exercise.

Let's say it's the middle of Summer.

You step outside and the sun is high up in the sky.

You immediately feel the warmth of the sun's rays against your face.

It's very bright, so you put on a pair of your favorite sunglasses.

You feel the plastic frame rest on your nose and ears and open your eyes again to see the world more clearly.

You start walking to your car, feel the warm door handle, and sit on the hot leather seats that have been baking in the sun.

You turn the car on and crank up the AC and feel the cool blast of air on your face.

Everything you felt and experience in that process is called mindfulness.

When you notice how the sun feels, how the sunglasses feel, the warmth of the car door, and the heat of the seats, you are using mindfulness.

And, it just so happens that the more mindful we are, the less anxious and depressed we are.

Let's examine how mindfulness reduces anxiety and depression.

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Mindfulness 101

What we just explored was a step-by-step experience most people have in the middle of Summer without ever realizing it.

We spend so much of our waking lives going from one task to another without ever paying attention.

Unless the weather is either extremely hot or extremely cold, or there is some odd occurrence, people generally are so wrapped up in their thoughts they don't notice the world they live in.

Mindfulness is the conscious attention paid to the real world.

It's a daily practice of stepping outside the world of your thoughts and into the real world of experience.

It's noticing your clothes against your body, the chair beneath you, the pillow under your head, and the touch of the warm cup of fresh-smelling morning coffee.

Mindfulness is, essentially, the experience of your life.

Seems a little odd, I know.

After all, obviously, we experience the world every day.

We get annoyed in traffic, bothered by the slow checkout lane, and feel better after some much-needed caffeine.

Mindfulness, however, is a different kind of experience.

Those other experiences aren't really the experience of life, they're the experience of the judgment of life.

Traffic is just traffic, being annoyed by it is a personal judgment.

A checkout line is just a line, but being bothered by it is also a judgment.

Mindfulness is the direct experience of life, without judgment.

And it has a huge impact on our mental health, especially anxiety, and depression.


Why it Works

So, why would mindfulness (experiencing the world without judgment) be so beneficial to anxiety and depression?

Well, there are a couple of reasons actually.

The first reason is that the more mindful we are, the less negative thinking we engage in.

As it turns out, the less negative thinking we do, the better we feel.

Simple, yet shocking how true it really is.

As humans, we have to make judgments all the time for health, safety, security, and belonging.

But, we get so used to it that we don't realize how harsh we are being with ourselves and others all day, every single day.

We are constantly making judgments that have no impact on our lives, other than making our day more difficult than it needs to be.

It's so innate that we literally aren't aware of how often we are in a negative state of mind.

If you don't believe me try to sit quietly for 2 minutes and focus on nothing except for your breath.

How many times did your mind wander?

How many times did it wander to thoughts that evoked envy, anger, or joy?

My guess is that the answer is a lot and a lot.

I'd even bet you got upset with yourself for not being able to focus for 2 minutes.

See my point?

But that's not the only reason mindfulness reduces anxiety and depression.

Yup, There's More

The second reason mindfulness decreases anxiety and depression has to do with what happens in the brain when you are being mindful.

The most important thing is that mindfulness inhibits the fear center in the amygdala.

It also decreases the communication between the fear center and the prefrontal cortex.

As communication between those two areas decreases, so do anxiety and depression.

So does stress, and negativity in general.

This allows for a clearer experience of reality and allows room for positive emotions such as contentedness, joy, and kindness.

These patterns build on one another so the more negatively you think, the more negatively you're going to think and feel.

But it's more of a 2-for-1 deal the other way around.

Being mindful not only decreases negativity but simultaneously boosts positivity, so the climb up to happier feelings is a lot quicker. 

It just takes more effort because we're so used to being negative, we're so used to the patterns that support anxiety and depression that it's hard to change those patterns.

However challenging it may be, it is possible.

So, let's get to the how.

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How to Be Mindful

So, ready to be more mindful?

Let's start with the basics, your five senses.

You can try this right now and throughout the day.

Sit for a moment and focus on your breathing.

Take 3-5 deep inhales and slow and controlled exhales.

Next, close your eyes and focus on what you can hear.

Listen to your environment and see how many sounds you can identify.

Don't judge what you hear, nothing is good or bad in this exercise, just notice.

Then move to your sense of smell.

What scents are lingering in the air?

Again, don't judge, just notice.

Repeat this with touch and taste and then finally open your eyes and look around the room.

How do you feel?

What do you notice?

Are you judging the things you see, or are you just noticing things as they are?

As soon as you notice yourself judging a certain situation, event, or thing, kindly remind yourself to just notice it instead, and let go of the judgment.

You'll find this practice very relaxing but very difficult to do throughout the day.

But, practice makes patience, and reduces anxiety and depression.

Conclusion

So, to wrap up, anxiety and depression are hugely influenced by our patterns of thinking.

Most of us think quite negatively most of the time and judge ourselves, others, and circumstances far more poorly than we (and they) deserve.

Practicing mindfulness reduces anxiety and depression by limiting the negativity in our minds, and by slowing communication between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

This allows the brain to let go of anxiety and depression and open up to joy and happiness. 

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June 21st, 2024

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