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When you think of mindfulness, do you dismiss it as a trend? It’s true that mindfulness is trendy, but it also has deep, traditional roots that are backed by modern research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. Most of that research uses mindfulness meditation, which has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression as well as produce positive changes in areas of the brain related to emotions and behavior change.
Mindfulness is famously defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Most of the time, we’re not in the present moment. We’re on autopilot, going through the motions of life — eating, driving or even talking — while our minds are busy rehashing the past or worrying about the future.
Practicing mindfulness makes you more aware of your thoughts, feelings, behaviors and habits, which is why the “nonjudgmentally” part is important — odds are you’re going to become hyperaware of aspects of yourself that you’re not thrilled about.
Maybe you learn your thoughts are rather unkind or you realize the extent of your quick temper. Perhaps you discover you eat to the point of uncomfortable fullness not occasionally, but daily.
Feeling judged — even when you’re the judge — can lead to shame and guilt, neither of which are effective motivators for positive change. But you can practice noticing our judgments as they pop up, then temper them with kindness, curiosity and acceptance.
Learning to respond, not react
Kindness and curiosity help you identify, explore and understand what might have led to the thought or behavior you might feel judgmental about. For example, maybe you ate the whole pint of ice cream because you were feeling deeply anxious or lonely. When you’re mindless, there’s no room for curiosity—or for growth and change.
Acceptance simply means acknowledging that whatever you are thinking, feeling, doing or experiencing is how it is in the present moment. This helps you avoid wasting energy beating yourself up or wrestling with denial so you can instead explore how to make positive changes.
One benefit of becoming more mindful is that it gives you more choice in the actions you take, because you’re not living on autopilot. This helps you respond rather than react to internal stimuli (thoughts, feelings and emotions) and external stimuli (people, situations and events). Practicing mindfulness can also help you form healthy habits, because it teaches you how to start over if you falter, without self-judgment.
State and trait mindfulness
There are two types of mindfulness: state and trait. State mindfulness is being deliberately, intentionally mindful, such as when you are meditating. Trait mindfulness has to do with whether you have a mindful disposition, so to speak. If you have a mindful disposition, you are likely to be more aware of your internal and external environments, without necessarily trying.
Researchers are finding that practicing state mindfulness, over time, increases our trait mindfulness. This is where practicing mindfulness meditation is useful. Mindfulness is a mental state, meditation is practicing that mental state in a “formal” way. When you meditate regularly, it becomes easier to “flex your mindfulness muscle” whenever you need to.
Of course, “meditating regularly” can be easier said than done. I know many people who go to a mindfulness meditation retreat, feel the benefits, and come home with every intention to make meditation a regular part of their life. And then weeks later they realize they’ve maybe meditated twice.
I also find meditating consistently to be an ongoing challenge, but the wonderful thing about awareness and non-judgement is that it makes it easier to start again rather than stick your head in the sand. And each time you begin again (whether with meditation or some other habit), that’s a win.
The good news is that there are almost too many great apps available to help you practice mindfulness meditation. My favorites are Headspace and Ten Percent Happier, but other good options include Insight Timer, Aura, JKZ Meditations and Calm.
Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.
Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!
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