What is Mindfulness? And, why does it matter?

When it comes to defining mindfulness, it may be easier to begin by discussing what it is not. Contrary to what many believe, mindfulness is not about having a blank mind, becoming emotionless, or escaping pain. Such attempts to escape—trying to turn off your thoughts and feelings—are often described by individuals attempting to practice mindfulness as the goal. The belief that having no thoughts or feelings is the route to happiness or a stress-free life may feed the attempts to escape; however, mindfulness, if anything, is a practice of attending to one’s thoughts, feelings, and difficulties. As a practice, it involves paying attention on purpose, not judging what you notice, and learning to accept things as they are.

Perhaps an example may help. Consider an individual struggling in school. The prospect of failure is stressing her out, and she is overrun with self-critical thoughts and anxious feelings. This, not so uncommon scenario can lead to a variety of coping behaviors that can serve to maintain the problem. The prospect of failure can easily become a chronic stressor. The student may begin to distract herself from school in a number of ways. She may begin going to the gym as an escape from school—rather than for self-care—or buying a subscription to Netflix to distract herself from thinking about her school performance. Such avoidance may provide temporary relief but can exacerbate problems as the reality of an upcoming exam once again reveals itself when the distraction is over and the student realizes that she has lost valuable study time. A fog of self-critical thoughts and anxiety may cloud her ability to focus, leading to more self-criticism and anxiety, as new information is difficult to absorb and retain. This may lead to attempts to control her thoughts or feelings, stop them, or change them in order to reduce anxious thoughts and self-criticism—a move that requires thinking about not thinking about anxiety and those things that prompt self-criticism, which only serves to keep her indirectly connected to anxiety, self-doubt, and self-criticism. A vicious cycle, without a doubt!

The point is that trying to escape difficulty only serves to maintain or exacerbate it, as one’s relationship to difficulty ends up being built on avoidance, resistance, and/or a mindful absence from the patterns of behavior and thought that inadvertently maintain the problem. Mindfulness practice works toward changing that relationship from avoidance to purposeful attending, from resistance to acceptance, and from absence to presence. In other words, mindfulness is a movement towards awareness of the patterns of behaviors and thoughts that can maintain difficulty, while, at the same time, accepting that you cannot escape stress and difficulty. Through deliberate practice, one can learn to be aware of and observe their thoughts, respond to them, and let them go, rather than hold onto and wrestle with them. One can develop the awareness of how they are feeling and sit inside the feelings, rather than trying to escape or resist them and develop the ability to take note, understand, and be responsive to what is felt, rather than being emotionally reactive. You can develop awareness of yourself in relationship to others, and others in relation to you, and the patterns of interaction that invite problems or solutions. Mindfulness is not a cure-all. Rather, it is a practice that allows one to develop the ability to recognize “patterns” of behavior, thoughts, and relationships that lead to, maintain and possibly exacerbate difficulty. It helps develop the awareness that stress and difficulty is a part of life and cannot be done away with, but that one’s relationship to difficulty can change, reducing stress about “being stressed” and leading to more satisfying outcomes. Mindfulness may simply be summed up as the intention to be aware, without judgment.

If you’re interested in learning more about the practice of mindfulness, the department of behavioral health and the Student Mental Health Ambassador, Adeem Tahira, have developed a monthly mindfulness practice meeting, led by Dr. Krepps. The meetings are open to all 1st and 2nd year medical students and is completely voluntary. Information regarding the initial meeting (date/time/place) will be sent out by email in the near future, so be on the lookout and make plans to join us.

To learn more about the Behavioral Health Department or to request an appointment, visit us!Behavioral Health