Ever wish you had a pause button…
Like when you sent that one text to your friend or couldn’t stop the stream of worried thoughts in your head before a test? Or when you were having the time of your life on vacation and wanted to take it all in?
Maybe you’ve heard the word mindfulness being tossed around these days by teachers and parents. You might be thinking it’s something for yoga instructors and Apple employees—the latest health trend. But don’t write it off yet; mindfulness is more than a trend for adults. Teens need in on these secrets too. That pause button? Mindfulness.
Our internal and external worlds are full of signals that fight for our attention. It can be hard to sort through emotions, thoughts, and what’s going on around us. We react without thinking, forget the conversations we just had, and jump to conclusions (like, “I just bombed this test and will never get into college”). Suddenly, you are fighting with your parents, or on your way to a party, you’d rather skip. You want to slow it down.
The brain has a hard job, sorting through the fast stream of information coming at you, and ultimately keeping you alive. I love talking about the brain but I’ll keep it short: sometimes, the conscious parts of the brain—the parts that help us make decisions and evaluate a situation—need a few seconds to catch up to the parts of the brain controlling automatic, gut reactions. The good news is that the brain is like a muscle. We can strengthen connections in the brain to help us slow down, pay attention, and be more aware of our daily experiences.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as the practice of “paying attention…on purpose, without judgment.”
We pay attention by noticing and observing what is happening in the moment. Sometimes this means you are focused on one thing, like the brownie you are eating. You notice how it smells, looks, feels, and tastes. Other times, this means you take in all the sensations of a moment, like being at the beach. You listen to waves crashing, watch kids build a sand castle, feel the sand under your feet, and smell the salt in the air. You take in the whole experience.
When we live mindfully, we try to observe and pay attention without judging the moment. When we judge, we value a situation as good, bad, scary, fun, boring, awkward, etc. Judging can build up a situation to be better or worse than it actually is, and we react accordingly. Nonjudgment means we observe the facts of the situation without drawing conclusions about them. Nonjudgment sounds like, “My face is red” vs. “Everyone must know I’m embarrassed (judgment).”
How can it help?
Mindfulness is not a cure-all, but when combined with other healthy habits in life, it can help lower stress levels and boost our mental functioning. The goal of mindfulness is not an ultimate Zen state. Mindfulness helps us give our full attention to the present moment so that we can fully enjoy our favorite flavor of Talenti Gelato, or focus our energy on having a hard conversation with a friend. Mindfulness can help you:
- Get out of your head. We can’t turn off the endless stream of thoughts in our brains. Mindfulness can help us get more skilled at refocusing our attention on the present moment and letting the train of thoughts pass by without hijacking the moment.
- Improve relationships. It’s rare to have an uninterrupted conversation these days, whether the distraction comes from our phones, mind, or environment. Friends may notice when you give them your full attention in a conversation; it feels good to be listened to.
- Enjoy the moment. We can rush through the day without savoring things we are meant to enjoy, like a sunset or a cool iced coffee. Mindfulness helps us appreciate ordinary moments.
- Identify feelings. Too often, I act angry when I am actually hungry (aka hangry). Mindfully observing the sensations in our body can help us identify feelings accurately and decide what we need to do to cope.
How can I practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be practiced anytime, anywhere. The best time to get started with mindfulness is when you can practice being mindful in a low-stress situation. The more we practice in easy moments, the more prepared we’ll be to be mindful in a high-pressure situation. Summer is prime time for practicing mindfulness when life is a little slower. Try it when you are eating ice cream, swimming in the pool, walking on the boardwalk (lots of people watching opportunities), or watching a sunset.
My favorite way to build my mindfulness muscle is through breathing exercises because I always have my breath with me. Focus on air flowing in and out of your nose as you breathe. For some guided breathing exercises and mindfulness meditations, try the app, Stop, Breathe & Think.
Some might not love this idea, but you can even practice mindfulness with a fidget spinner. Take one minute to focus on how it feels to hold the fidget spinner in your hand, noticing it’s shape and different textures. Listen to the sounds it makes when you spin it. Feel the subtle vibrations from the spinning. Observe what it’s like when it’s moving and when it’s still. Other options for this exercise are a stress ball or a soft pillow.
When you practice mindfulness, your thoughts will interrupt you. Think of your thoughts as cars passing by your home. Notice them, and let them pass. Each time you redirect your attention back to the present, you have done a mindfulness “rep.” It’s like crunches, but a lot more fun than the physical fitness test.
And now, a mindful moment from a favorite non-expert: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller