One of the skills I prided myself on in my son’s early years was mental multitasking. I remember planning his entire first birthday party months ahead of time during middle of the night rocking sessions while also researching sleep solutions and ways of introducing new foods. Days were the same way — physically I’d be doing one thing, but mentally I’d be doing five. I felt frazzled but wasn’t entirely sure why.
The turning point for me came the day I got on the Interstate in Ankeny, drove I-35/80 to Urbandale, exited, pulled into the parking lot at work, and realized I had been driving automatically. I had no memory of lane changes, turn signals, or even if the traffic had been bad. I had been in my head, thoughts racing, and I had put my safety at risk. Something needed to change.
I know I’m not the only one. I talk to moms every day who struggle with racing thoughts, overwhelming worry, and sometimes panic. Initially, this type of thinking might feel productive or even useful. Eventually, as life becomes more challenging, it always becomes debilitating.
What helped me and what I teach my clients is mindfulness skills.
Mindfulness at its core is a way of living fully in each moment, taking new experiences as they come, openly and without judgement. As a result, anxiety decreases and a whole new, more peaceful way of being develops. Mindfulness principles also acknowledge that struggle is a part of life. Rather than trying to focus on solving or avoiding struggles, mindfulness provides practical ways for being in hard times well. Sounds great, but how?
Here are four skills to get you started on your way towards mindful living.
1. Deep Breathing
Simple, yet powerful, this is my go-to skill when I start feeling overwhelmed. Taking five slow, deep breaths in a row works because it impacts our physiology. Our sympathetic (stress response) and parasympathetic (calm) systems work like a teeter totter. They both can’t be high at the same time. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic system and anxiety goes down as a result. Focus on inhaling fully, filling your diaphragm, and exhaling slowly and completely. Pay attention to the sensations of inhaling and exhaling.
Grounding is a way of using your five senses to get out of your head into the moment you are in. Start by describing several things you can touch — like a soft sweatshirt or a hard, smooth tabletop. Then describe several things you can see around you. Look for details such as shadows on the wall, colors, or decorations. Next, describe what you can hear. Finish with what you can smell and taste. Put on your favorite lotion or intentionally sip coffee or tea to engage those senses. Do this exercises slowly — you can either focus on the environment around you or on an object in front of you like your cup of coffee.
3. Participate Fully
Whatever you are doing, just do that one thing fully. If you are doing laundry, just do laundry. Use your senses to notice and engage with just that task. Play with your child with enthusiasm, letting go of your mental to-do list and focusing on their expressions and actions. When you get distracted by your thoughts, refocus on your activity. Refocus as many times as you need to — the goal isn’t to do this skill perfectly, just intentionally.
4. Pray Simply
Focus on a single truth or request. Don’t pressure yourself to have elaborately worded or extensive prayers. Just ask for God’s help or acknowledge His presence in the midst of the struggle.
As you start practicing mindfulness, these skills may seem difficult at first. This is normal. It takes repeated, intentional practice for us to learn to run our thoughts instead of letting our thoughts run us. And, while we can’t always choose which thoughts come into our minds, we can learn to choose which thoughts we focus on.
Learning to take control of my thoughts and choosing to live more fully in each moment has made me a better wife, mom, friend, and psychologist. I’m able to set mental boundaries around stressors, and I feel less anxious as a result. I’m also a much safer driver.
Meet Guest Blogger Heidi Warner, PhD
Dr. Heidi is a licensed clinical psychologist with a passion for helping women and their families lead emotionally and spiritually healthy lives. She loves being married to her husband Luke and being a mostly stay-at-home mom to their almost four-year-old son Benjamin. Dr. Heidi specializes in working with women who are experiencing postpartum depression and anxiety, transition to motherhood, and spiritually integrated therapy. She also writes and records weekly radio segments for Life 107.1. You can find out more about Dr. Heidi at www.grownewhope.com or Life1071.com.