Dr. Dave Verhaagen continues his series for Psych Bytes called OMEGAS that helps young adults live happier lives. In the second of this six-part plan, he explains what Mindfulness is and how it can lead to great wellbeing.

Mindfulness Makes a Difference

A 25-year-old client I’ll call Brad sat across from me and ticked off all the stressors in his life: his car needed a thousand dollars worth of repair, his company was reorganizing, his girlfriend seemed mad at him most of the time, his beloved grandfather was dying. Any of these alone would weigh on a person, but the combination of them was overwhelming.

I introduced the idea of mindfulness and explained it to him: mindfulness involves keeping your thoughts in the present moment. It’s a discipline that requires practice, but it has benefits that can help you not only weather the current storms, but also make you happier and healthier in your life.

He politely told me it sounded like a dumb idea. No thanks, silly therapist man. But when he came back the next week with his stressors mounting up on him, he brought it up again.

“Tell me about that thing again,” he said. “The thing with the breathing and whatever.”

I taught him about the thing with the breathing and whatever and he said he was willing to try it. Skip ahead about a month. He had gotten his car repaired and was out $1100 and all the other stressors remained about the same, but something was different. Not different with his circumstances; different with his way of responding and with the impact all these crappy things had on him.

His mood and outlook were brighter; his ability to tolerate frustration was better. His girlfriend–coincidentally or not–was starting to be less annoyed with him.

I don’t want to hold mindfulness as a miracle that cures all that ails you, but I don’t want to minimize its impact either. Hundreds of studies support its effectiveness in many different areas and many Fortune 500 companies have adapted it for their executives, while professional sports leagues have embraced it to help athletes with performance enhancement.

The Problem with Highly Evolved Brains

We’d all be happier if we were dogs. We would play and sleep and eat and wag our tails without a care in the world. As humans, though, we are full of worry and angst. We fret about our bank accounts; our jobs stress us out; our relationships preoccupy us.

If we are so much smarter than dogs, why do we seem so less happy? It’s precisely because we are smart that we experience so much malaise. The same brain that helped us rise to the top of the food chain also kicks our butts emotionally.

Unlike other critters, our minds have evolved to time travel. We are always going back and forth in our thoughts, reviewing the past and anticipating the future. Back when we were cave dwellers, this was awesome. It kept us safe.

The last time I left the cave, there was a big saber-toothed cat waiting outside, so I’ll bring my spear with me next time, thought Caveman Dave.

In Dave Verhaagen's six-part "OMEGAS" plan, he answers a commonly asked question. What is mindfulness and how can mindfulness improve your well-being?
“Caverhaagen”

Notice how I thought about “the last time” (past) and “next time” (future) when I was a caveman who lived in a world of danger. Because of that mental skill, I lived to hunt another day.

Now, however, even though we live in the safest time in history (yes, it’s true), our brains still do this–and they do it even more than ever. The world is bigger and more complex. News and information and social media feeds constantly bombard us. The area of our brain that kept us safe is now in overdrive trying to manage everything that is pelting us.

So now instead of velociraptors, we ruminate about the dumb thing we said at work or the poor decision we made at the party. Instead of warring tribes, we worry about our finances and our relationships. We review the past and get discouraged; we fret about the future and get anxious.

New technology and social media, while offering many benefits, contribute to all this rumination and worry. We’re bombarded with news all day long and feel dread and anger. We scroll through our Instagram and Twitter feeds and feel the pangs of regret or disappointment or jealousy.

As a result, all this mental time traveling wears us out emotionally. Our minds are constantly ping-ponging around. It’s no wonder rates of anxiety and depression have blown up in the past decade. It’s also exactly why mindfulness is perfect for these times.

Mindfulness: Where Eastern Practice Meets Western Science

While mindfulness as a wellness and therapeutic approach has only been around for the past forty years or so, it has roots in practices that go back as early as the fifth century. While most often thought to have its beginnings in Buddhist meditative practices, similar disciplines are found in the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions.

Across centuries and cultures, even though it was called by different names, the practice of mindfulness has lead people to greater emotional health and wellbeing. We’ve only recently begun to understand its power and potential.

Mindfulness may have started out as an ancient eastern practice, but western science has found that the practice not only has short-term benefits, but can even change the structure and function of the brain.

Research using brain imaging shows remarkable changes with just a few weeks of practice. But to get the bigger benefits, you have to practice.

Americans desire quick fixes, so practices requiring time and practice are a tough sell. However, many of us regulary exercise and work out because the gradual effects become obvious to us.

We feel better and look better after a few weeks of effort. The benefits of mindfulness are less observable, but just as real. A few weeks of practice can make a huge difference with our emotional wellbeing and mental sharpness. It takes time and effort, but it’s worth it.

A Workout for Your Mind

Comparing mindfulness to working out may seem like a stretch, but it’s an accurate and helpful way of describing it.

If you go to the gym once, you might be glad you did it and you might have a momentary high, but you won’t see any of the long-term benefits–strength, stamina, speed, definition–until you do it for a few weeks. If you are consistent for a month of working out, you’ll start inviting people to the gun show.

The same is true for mindfulness. When you practice mindfulness for five or ten minutes, you might find it to be relaxing, but if you don’t continue practicing it, you’ll miss out on the long-term benefits of greater wellbeing, better focus, less anxiety, and better stress tolerance.

So we know mindfulness works, the question is whether you’d be willing to dedicate 10 minutes a day for 4-6 weeks to practicing it. If you are, then you’ll likely receive enormous benefits from it.

Mindfulness Apps and Resources

You’ve probably noticed I didn’t describe how to do mindfulness here. That’s because there’s a ton of good resources that help with that, including some on this website. Let me point you in the right directions.

Psych Bytes has great resources for you on the practice of mindfulness. Elise Howell, a great therapist in Charlotte, has written a clear and practical piece on the benefits of mindfulness and how to practice it for Psych Bytes. You can find it here and she also has a Psych in 60 video that you’ll find helpful, as well.

In addition to these resources, I encourage you to try out mindfulness apps for your smart phone or tablet. Consider these:

Headspace
Headspace
Flora
Flora
Calm
Calm
Aura
Aura

These will walk you through mindfulness meditation exercises. You can flop in a comfy chair or sit cross-legged on the floor or even lay on your bed while you practice.

Each of these apps has unique benefits, so explore a few of them. A few even have Apple Watch functionality that make them even more practical. Pick one that’s best for you

Finally, if you are willing to plunk down ten bucks or so, head over to Udemy for a mindfulness course taught by the most famous mindfulness master in the world Thich Nhat Hanh. People have traveled around the world to hear him teach and you could get fifteen lessons from him for less than a movie ticket.

Whatever works for you, the practice of mindfulness can enhance your life and make you a happier and healthier person who’s better able to manage the stresses and frustrations that come with living in a complicated world.

I encourage you to start today and give it a month. Just like working out, there won’t be one moment where you’ll get all the benefits, but gradually, you’ll find yourself closer to the happier life you desire.

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Dr. Dave Verhaagen
Dave Verhaagen is the author or co-author of eight books, including Therapy with Young Men and Parenting the Millennial Generation. As a licensed psychologist who earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he has served as clinical director for three mental health agencies and is the founder and former CEO of Southeast Psych, a large psychology practice in Charlotte, NC. He is one of fewer than 5% of psychologists in the U.S. to be certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) and he is a Fellow of both The American Board of Clinical Psychology and The American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. His work has been featured several times in USA Today, Newsweek, and dozens of newspapers around the country. He works almost exclusively with young adults (16-29 year olds) in his clinical practice. Dave is a popular speaker at local, state, and national conferences. He has been married to Ellen for 26 years and they have four young adult children: Daniel, Christy, Maddie, and Abbey.Fun facts: He once broke a finger tucking in his shirt and broke another finger making his bed. He worked in radio for seven years on-air. He is a bad magician. He still dresses up each year for Halloween. Do with this information what you will.

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