In a world that prioritizes work over rest, empty calories, and social media, it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm. Our nervous systems just weren’t designed for this constant stream of sensory input.
It’s no wonder so many of us are feeling chronically dysregulated. However, there is a powerful tool that can help us find calm in the chaos: mindfulness. Mindfulness has been around for centuries, and its benefits for the nervous system are scientifically supported.[*]
In this article, we explore what mindfulness is, how it works, the potential benefits, and provide you with simple ways to use mindfulness to help regulate your nervous system.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the intentional practice of bringing our attention to the present moment without judgment. It involves becoming the observer of our thoughts, feeling our emotions and bodily sensations, and being present in our surroundings. By bringing a non-judgmental awareness to these experiences, we can observe them with curiosity and acceptance.
Most of us are in the habit of practicing the direct opposite of this. We lose ourselves in stories of the past and future, in an attempt to escape the discomfort we feel in our everyday lives.
What Does it Mean to Become the Observer of Your Thoughts?
One key aspect of mindfulness is learning to become the observer of your thoughts. Instead of being swept away by the constant stream of your inner monologue, mindfulness nudges you to step back and observe your thoughts as if they were passing clouds in the sky. This helps you create distance from your thoughts, recognizing that they are not necessarily facts or truths but simply mental events. By becoming the observer, you can choose whether to engage with or let go of certain thoughts, reducing their power over your emotions and actions.
Confused much? Another approach is to imagine your mind as a vast theatre, and your thoughts as the scene being played out on stage. Becoming the observer of your thoughts is like taking a seat in the audience and simply watching the show without becoming emotionally entangled in it. Something I can’t seem to do with Virgin River.
Ultimately it means adopting a detached and non-judgmental view of your thoughts and emotions. This creates space for nervous system clarity and calm.
How Does Mindfulness Work?
Mindfulness works by training our attention to focus on the present moment. With regular practice, we learn to direct our attention to what is happening right now, rather than getting lost in worries about the past or future. This practice helps us become more aware of our thoughts and feelings, allowing us to respond to them in a more skilful and compassionate way. Over time, these practices may result in changes to brain function and structure, helping to cement these healthier thought processes and stress responses.[*]
The Potential Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness brings about a sense of peace and well-being that helps improve our coping abilities and expands the capacity of our nervous systems. It creates room between trigger and reaction, allowing us to build resilience and respond better under stress. The benefits may include:
- Stress Reduction: Mindfulness helps to activate the relaxation response in the body, reducing the harmful effects of chronic stress and nervous system dysregulation.[*][*]
- Improved Mental Health: Research has shown that mindfulness can alleviate symptoms of anxiety, and depression, and improve overall psychological well-being.[*]
- Enhanced Focus and Concentration: Regular mindfulness practice strengthens our attention, leading to improved focus, concentration, and cognitive performance.[*]
- Emotional Regulation: Mindfulness allows us to observe our emotions without being overwhelmed by them, leading to greater emotional resilience and better nervous system regulation.[*][*]
- Better Sleep: Practicing mindfulness before bed can promote relaxation and help quiet the mind, leading to improved sleep quality.[*]
- Breaking Unhealthy Patterns: Observing your thoughts enables you to catch repetitive and unhelpful patterns of rumination. Instead of getting caught in a downward spiral, you can choose to redirect your attention and engage in more productive thinking.[*]
Who Should Practice Mindfulness?
Adults and kids alike can benefit from a Mindfulness practice. Whether you’re a desk jockey, cramming for school exams, juggling kids, or dealing with specific health challenges, mindfulness can be beneficial. It’s a versatile practice that can be customized to suit individual needs and preferences – any time, anywhere.
Mindfulness and The Parasympathetic Nervous System
Our nervous system has two main branches: the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) systems. Mindfulness helps regulate the nervous system by activating the parasympathetic branch, which promotes relaxation, lowers heart rate, and reduces stress hormone levels. This shift from a heightened state of arousal to a more balanced state helps restore equilibrium and supports overall well-being.[*]
How to Practice Mindfulness
If you are knee-deep in stress and dysregulation, the last thing you need is another item on the to-do list. That’s why mindfulness is such a valuable practice for the nervous system. There are multiple ways you can practice – many of which can seamlessly be incorporated into your daily routine with minimal effort. Here are some of our favorites:
- Mindfulness Meditation: Find a quiet place, sit comfortably, and focus your attention on your breath or a chosen object. Whenever your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the present moment without judgment. Start with short sessions and gradually increase the duration.
- Body Scan Mindfulness: Lie down or sit comfortably and bring your attention to different parts of your body, starting from your toes and moving up to your head. Notice any sensations or areas of tension, and breathe into them, allowing them to release.
- Mindful Walking: Take a leisurely walk outdoors, paying attention to the physical sensations of each step. Notice the sights, sounds, and smells around you. Engage all your senses and be fully present in the experience.
- Mindful Eating: Slow down and savor each bite of your meals. Pay attention to the flavors, textures, and smells. Chew slowly and appreciate the goodness you’re providing your body.
- Mindfulness Gratitude Quotes: Surround yourself with quotes that inspire gratitude. Place them in your workspace or on your mirror as a daily reminder to pause and cultivate a moment of presence and gratitude.
- Mindful Breathing: Throughout the day, take a pause and bring your attention to your breath. Take a few slow, deep breaths, noticing the sensation of the air entering and leaving your body. This can be done anywhere, anytime.
- Technology Breaks: Set aside dedicated time each day to disconnect from electronic devices. Use this time to engage in activities that promote presence, such as reading, walking, or spending quality time with loved ones.
- Loving-Kindness Meditation: Cultivate compassion and kindness by silently repeating phrases like “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease.” Extend these wishes to loved ones, acquaintances, and even difficult individuals.
- Mindful Listening: Engage in active listening by giving your full attention to the person speaking. Put away distractions, maintain eye contact, and listen without interrupting or formulating responses.
- Mini-Mindfulness Moments: Integrate mindfulness into your daily routine by finding opportunities to be fully present. Whether it’s while brushing your teeth, washing dishes, or taking a shower, focus your attention on the task at hand and engage all your senses.
- Mindfulness Coloring:
Coloring intricate patterns or mandalas can be a great meditative practice. It engages your creativity and focus, providing a sense of calm. Get started with our free printable mindfulness coloring PDFs.
- Mindfulness Journal Prompts:
Dedicate a notebook to your mindfulness journaling. Write down your reflections, gratitude lists, and observations about your journey. Using specific mindfulness journal prompts can help clarify your thoughts and emotions.
- Mindfulness Cards:
Consider using mindfulness cards as a valuable tool in your mindfulness practice. These cards often contain prompts or exercises designed to encourage mindfulness and self-reflection. Each day, draw a card at random and engage with the activity or reflection it suggests.
- Creating a Mindfulness Box:
Assemble a collection of sensory items that promote mindfulness. Some ideas include:
Soothing essential oils
Mindfulness gratitude quotes
Photos of nature
Use your mindfulness box whenever you need a moment of relaxation and grounding.
Why Do I Feel Resistance to Practicing Mindfulness?
Resistance is a natural part of the process. Your mind is used to identifying with thoughts and emotions, and the idea of detaching from them can be HARD. Be gentle with yourself and understand that resistance is just a sign of the mind’s conditioning. With persistence and patience, you can find freedom in becoming the observer. When resistance rears its head, reach for your mindfulness toolbox. Use mindfulness journal prompts to redirect your thoughts, or pull a mindfulness card to help guide you towards a more present activity.
Incorporating Mindfulness into Your Everyday Life
Getting started on your mindfulness journey doesn’t need to be hard. Follow these easy steps to get started:
- Set small, achievable goals
- Choose one or two mindfulness practices that resonate with you and commit to practicing them daily
- Set reminders on your phone to prompt your practice
- Create a supportive environment
- Be patient with yourself as you cultivate this new habit
Mindfulness is a powerful tool for calming the nervous system, reducing stress, and promoting overall well-being. By incorporating simple mindfulness practices into our daily lives, we can experience the benefits of increased focus, emotional regulation, and improved mental health.