By cultivating mindfulness, we can learn to identify the negative thoughts that keep us trapped in feelings of self-doubt and shame, and learn instead to embrace the peacefulness that stems from living in the present moment.
One of the easiest ways to be disconnected from our core selves is through habitual negative thinking. It can be easy to feel like negative or worrisome thoughts are capable of “kidnapping” our minds and taking us out of the present moment, especially when we’re stressed or anxious. These unpleasant thoughts are often based on automatic thought processes that have been playing over and over in our heads, unchallenged, for years. These thought patterns can fall into three general categories: labeling, catastrophizing, and overgeneralization.
Releasing Negative Thought Patterns
Mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn (who is the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School), can be defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjugmentally.” In other words, mindfulness allows us to become more aware of our thoughts without labeling or judging them. When we are able to be still, and be anchored in the now, we notice our thoughts more clearly. And when we become aware of our thoughts, we’re able to begin challenging them.
Challenging Negative Thoughts
It’s easier to challenge negative thoughts when the process is broken down into steps. The next time you observe yourself stuck in a negative thought pattern, try practicing these four steps.
1. Recognize that you are having a negative thought or pattern of negative thoughts.
2. Say “Stop!” In your head (or out loud if it feels socially appropriate).
3. Challenge the thought by probing it with questions. Ask yourself, “What evidence do I have to support this thought?” Odds are, you’ll notice that the evidence isn’t strong.
4. Replace the thought with something more rational or positive. For example, if you’re thinking, “I am ugly,” try thinking instead about the individuals in your life who would disagree, or browse through flattering photos on Facebook or Instagram.
When we release negative thought patterns and become mindful of the present, we allow ourselves to fully experience all the joy that is available to us in a given moment.
Becoming Mindful — Your Action Plan
Mindfulness may feel great, but that doesn’t mean it feels easy to achieve. To help clients start on the path to mindfulness, I recommend the following practices.
Imagine how young children and animals act in the world. They’re so connected to whatever’s going on in the present (You don’t see a dog worrying about the look he got from the neighbor’s dog last Thursday.). Set an intention to bring a gentle curiosity to life, as animals and children do. When we approach our thoughts in this way, we don’t feel a need to attach to them or push them away. Instead, we can explore them, with childlike wonder, and let them be nothing more than what they are — thoughts.
Practice yoga — especially the hard poses. Yoga is a meditation of the body. In yoga, our bodies help to “anchor” us in the present, as our awareness is focused on the changes happening within our bodies. A particularly useful paradigm for those struggling with anxiety or depression is to hold a challenging pose (such as downward facing dog, plank, or warrior 3) and to bring attention to the discomfort — embrace it, and breathe through it. When we experience a depressive or anxious state, we feel that it will never end, that the pain will not lift. Challenging poses teach us to accept the challenge and to trust that, just like anything else, it will pass, and the pain will subside.
Eat mindfully. When was the last time you sat down for a meal and really enjoyed the flavor, texture, smell, and presentation of your food? So often, we eat on the run or in front of a screen. In contrast, eating mindfully means paying attention to our five senses in conjunction with slowing down. Think about where your food came from — who made it? What processes occurred to bring the food to the plate in front of you? Look, smell, explore, feel, smell again, take a small bite, chew, taste, savor, and swallow. Challenge yourself to eat a meal mindfully (and maybe in silence) at least a few times a week.
Take a mindful shower. The activities that we perform on a daily basis, such as showering, often become the most mindless, because we learn to cruise through them on automatic pilot. But these activities serve as wonderful opportunities to practice mindfulness. The next time you’re in the shower, focus on the water on your skin. What is the temperature? How is the pressure? Use your sense of smell to enjoy the scent of your shampoo or body wash. Really bring yourself into the moment and actually think about what you are doing. Notice how this experience differs from your usual routine.
Practice mindful listening. What does it mean to listen mindfully? It means to listen, just listen, without judgment and without preparing or thinking about your response or opinion. Instead, just listen and allow the person space to express their ideas and feelings. Don’t interrupt, add your opinion, or agree or disagree. Decide to neither attach to nor reject whatever the other person is expressing. Simply let the expression be what it is. The simple practice of mindful listening can enhance relationships by promoting mutual respect and creating a deeper understanding of the messages being communicated.
- Kiss somebody.
- Laugh out loud in a public restroom so it echoes.
- Eat some candy while waiting in line.
- Say thank you for anything.
- Compliment someone you know needs to hear it.
- Slide down a banister.
- Plant something.
- Do yoga
- Sprint as fast as you can like Phoebe Buffay (YouTube it).
- Take a silly picture.
- Play your favorite song – LOUDLY!
- Read a book and tell someone else what you read placing yourself in the story.
- Spin until you are dizzy.
- Blow bubbles – Gum. Soapy wand. Bathtub (your choice).
- Walk in nature.
- Watch a funny movie.
- Call a friend.
- Plan a vacation.
- Hug someone — preferably a stranger.
- Attempt a cartwheel.
- Adopt a pet.
- Dance naked to Richard Simmons’ “Sweatin to the Oldies.”
- Sleep naked on silk sheets.
- Swim naked.
- Basically – do anything you would normally do, but naked.
- Bake something and pass it out to your neighbors.
- Inhale from a helium balloon and order a pizza
- Take a nap on a park bench.
- Get a massage.
- Jump in a pool fully clothed.
- Do push-ups while trying to play the harmonica.
- Arm wrestle your neighbor.
- Whistle show tunes during your next meeting.
- Buy yourself something.
- Get a giant frozen yogurt bowl
- Test drive a new car.
- Let it out – Go in your closet and SCREAAAAM!
- Read anything by Louise L. Hay.
- Get a manicure – guys and gals!
- Walk barefoot in the grass.
- Brush your hair – proven to be relaxing.
- Skip rocks at the lake. If you’re not near a lake, skip dinner plates at the park.
- Dump negative friends.
- Get acupuncture.
- Paint something.
- Listen to ambient sounds – those soft relaxing tones that lower your brain wave frequency.
- Go to the pet store and hold something slimy.
- Take a long hot bath.
- Turn off your cell phone
- Ignore others opinions and start valuing your own.
- Overcome a fear – do something you are afraid to do.
- Challenge your negative thoughts for validity.
- Look for something to be grateful for right this minute.
- Spend time alone – but do it with friends, family and strangers.
- Get a facial.
- SMILE =-) – Neurological changes happen in the brain just by smiling.
- Put the past in the past.
- Learn in-home acupuncture kit… without the needles.
- Climb a tree.
- Go to your happy place.
- Help a stranger.
- Write in your journal.
- Know there is no such thing as failure – only giving up.