By Ben Lotstein, MFT Student in Couple and Family Enhancement Research Lab
We live in the most fast-paced, high-pressure culture in history. So much seems to be expected from us at work, at home, and in our relationships, and somehow we’re supposed to figure out how to attend to all those obligations and still be at our best all the time.
Telling your boss that you can’t make a deadline because you’re stressed out from a fight with your partner isn’t going to keep you in the job for very long—so we’re stuck attempting to win a game of catch-up with next to no time to recharge fully.
Two processes can help people manage their stressful lives, and offer a few simple skills to practice that can significantly improve outcomes.
Resilience, as it is used in the academic literature, refers to the processes surrounding or within a person who faces significant stress yet fares as well or better than those who don’t experience the same stressors (Masten, 2018).
Two such processes that are consistently associated with higher levels of resilience are emotion regulation and social support. Emotion regulation refers to people’s ability to manage challenges in such a way that they have more control over their emotional experience. Social support refers to the quality of emotional and material backing one receives from their family and friends.
The good news is that there’s one approach that can predictably bolster practitioners’ ability to work with their emotions and nurture more satisfying, less conflictual relationships: mindfulness.
There were over 800 academic journal articles published on mindfulness in 2018 alone (American Mindfulness Research Association, 2019). Some of the benefits of mindfulness mentioned in those articles include improvements with memory, managing physical pain, and relationship satisfaction, and reductions in anxiety, depression, and emotional reactivity (Davis & Hayes, 2011; Vollestad, Nielson, & Nielson, 2012).
Even with all the attention mindfulness has gotten over the past couple of decades, most people are somewhat unclear on how to define it, let alone build it into their lives. This makes sense because the term mindfulness has been used in various ways in the media, contemplative literature, and research settings.
It has been described as a state that one can intentionally bring about, a dispositional quality, and meditation practice, among others. For the sake of this, John Kabat-Zinn’s (2009) definition of mindfulness: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Practicing mindfulness helps you get off the mental hamster wheel of never-ending, often negative future or past-oriented thoughts, and taps back into what’s going on for you at the moment. The benefits of practicing mindfulness are achieved by shifting the way we connect to ourselves and others, and through changes in physiological functioning.
The kicker is that to be mindful, all you have to do is intentionally experience what’s going on in the present moment without deciding if it’s good or bad.
Three ways to practice mindfulness throughout your day:
1. Intentional breathing
I find working with the breath to be particularly interesting because it’s an automatic bodily process that we’re able to take control of in a manner that has far-reaching implications.
For example, see what happens if, during your next few cycles of breath you make your exhales about twice as long as your inhales. The point here isn’t to take an impressively long breath but to intentionally focus on breathing with your diaphragm and having exhales that are nice and long.
Some immediate effects of elongated exhales you might experience are feeling calmer, more physically relaxed, and a slower pace of thinking. Lengthening your exhales activates your parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest side of our nervous system, which is the opposite of the fight/flight/freeze response
It’s common that we inadvertently hold our breaths or take shallow, quick breaths when we’re feeling uncomfortable emotions or concentrating on a task. You can build this breathing technique into your routine right when you get up in the morning, while you’re walking between meetings or classes, and when you feel yourself tensing up in response to emotional or intellectual challenges.
2. Mental labeling
It’s so easy to get swept up in the stories we tell ourselves as we think about what’s going on in our lives. Interestingly, our thoughts about life tend to quickly stray from reality, descending into catastrophizing and contingency planning.
Consider what it would be like to be giving a presentation when you realize that you’ve got a coffee stain on your nicely pressed white shirt, or that your PowerPoint has an embarrassing typo. Many of us would begin to spin out in our minds about how stupid we must look, and how our colleagues or supervisors are judging us.
This is a key place to try the skill of mental labeling. Just as the name implies, mental labeling involves noticing and mentally narrating what’s going on in our minds without jumping into all the extra thoughts or judgment about the situation.
As mentioned earlier, our unfortunate tendency to be negative with our thinking can exacerbate whatever challenging situation we may be facing. You can label all aspects of your experience: thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations.
So now back to the example of giving a presentation when you notice the stain or typo—you would think to yourself, “feeling embarrassed,” or “feeling face blushing,” or “I totally want to run out of the room right now,” and then attempt to let go of the thought and return to what you’re doing. “Name it to tame it” is a great saying from the therapy world.
The idea here is that by just noticing what’s going on for us and leaving out the story about what it might mean or what the repercussions may be, we can effectively stay in the moment and do the best we can.
Although I’ve given an example of a negative situation in which one can practice this skill, mental labeling is an excellent tool for staying in the moment during all types of experiences that might bring up thoughts that pull us out of the present.
3. Come to your senses
You know how in old-timey movie characters might tell each other to “Come to your senses!”? What that line meant was “get ahold of yourself,” or something of the sort. Although most of us wouldn’t think twice about that messaging, I think there’s some real wisdom in there.
The last skill on our list of ways to bring mindfulness into our everyday lives is to tap into our senses for a direct pulse on what’s going on at that moment. Smell the smells, notice sights, feel your body, hear sounds, etc.
It’s so easy to jump right into our to-do list the moment we open our eyes, so noticing our senses helps bring us back to what’s really happening, allowing us to realize that our back may need some stretching, or that there’s a beautiful sunset that would be worth taking in.
You can apply the mental labeling technique to this skill. For instance, during your next meal, you can mentally label the tastes of your food, or while you’re walking, you can mentally label “feeling feet” as you notice the sensations of your feet against the ground. Coming to your senses is a super quick and easy way to practice mindfulness just about anywhere.
Although it might be slightly more apparent how practicing mindfulness could improve your emotion regulation, you might be wondering how this practice could directly affect your relationships.
Studies have concluded that increasing attunement to one’s own emotional experience through being mindful results in an improved ability to connect with others (Gambrel & Keeling, 2010). Examples of this phenomenon have been found in the positive correlation between higher levels of mindfulness and couples’ relationship satisfaction, attention to partner stress, and levels of empathy.
Studies have also found that mindfulness enhances parent-child relationships by decreasing ineffective, automatic responses to stressors and helping parents and children connect more deeply.
Additionally, mindfulness has been found to be positively correlated with secure attachment and negatively correlated with both anxious and avoidant attachment (if you’re not familiar with attachment styles, I suggest you do some Googling as that topic is beyond the scope of this article).
Just as being mindful leads to a self-accepting mindset, it often leads to more acceptance of others—a tendency that facilitates the development of deep, lasting connections (Ryan, Safran, Duran, & Muran, 2012).
As you give these skills a try, remember that as simple as they may be, it can still be incredibly challenging to shift the ways of being that we’ve been practicing our whole lives and that have been reinforced by many of our cultures.
My hope for you is that these skills will help you more fully feel all aspects of your life, nurture the relationships that are meaningful to you, and tackle challenges with an open heart.
If you would like additional support navigating the realities of this time, the CSU Center for Family and Couple Therapy has registered counselors available to meet with you now. The CFCT is currently providing all Colorado residents low-cost individual, couple, and family online video sessions during daytime and evening hours to fit your schedule. To schedule an appointment, please call (970) 491-5991 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Davis, D. M., & Hayes, J. A. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy, 48(2), 198–208. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022062
Gambrel, L. E., & Keeling, M. L. (2010). Relational Aspects of Mindfulness: Implications for the Practice of Marriage and Family Therapy. Contemporary Family Therapy, 32(4), 412–426. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10591-010-9129-z
Journal Articles on Mindfulness Continue to Grow in 2018. (2019). https://goamra.org/journal-articles-on-mindfulness-continue-to-grow-in-2018/
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Lebanon, IN: Hachette Books.
Masten, A. S. (2018). Resilience theory and research on children and families: Past, present, and promise. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 10(1), 12-31.
Ryan, A., Safran, J. D., Doran, J. M., & Muran, J. C. (2012). Therapist mindfulness, alliance and treatment outcome. Psychotherapy Research, 22(3), 289–297. https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2011.650653
Vøllestad, J., Nielsen, M. B., & Nielsen, G. H. (2012). Mindfulness- and acceptance-based interventions for anxiety disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis: Mindfulness- and acceptance-based interventions for anxiety disorders. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51(3), 239–260. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8260.2011.02024.x