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We all get cognitively, emotionally, or behaviorally inflexible and stuck. We fixate on the same thoughts over and over again, feel trapped and overwhelmed by certain emotions, or constantly repeat the same behaviors. Change takes energy and effort and there is a strong sense of familiarity, and therefore comfort, that can come from repeated patterns, of doing things the same way, even if it’s unhelpful.

Yet stuckness is demoralizing. It sucks the sense of capability, confidence, and hope out of us. It makes us want to stay in bed with a blanket over our heads, literally or figuratively. Practicing mindfulness is one way to get unstuck, to create options and a greater sense of psychological flexibility.

When you are caught in your thoughts and feeling stuck, you are missing out on opportunities in the present moment to do things you find meaningful and important. Mindfulness skills help you connect with the present moment and notice and observe your thoughts and feelings without getting overly focused or fixated on them.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of bringing direct, intentional, and nonjudgmental awareness to the present moment and what you are doing while you are doing it. Mindfulness allows us to see more objectively what is happening in the moment vs. what our automatic thoughts or emotions may be telling us is happening.

The aim of practicing mindfulness exercises is not to change how we feel, nor to lessen stress, anxiety, depression, etc. The aim is to practice tuning into the present moment and our direct experience rather than solely thinking about our experience.

At the same time, it can be the case that we can change our experience by changing how we pay attention to it. Practicing mindfulness creates options for how we relate to our experiences, particularly unpleasant emotions and experiences. For example, if I am feeling physical pain or feeling anxious, I can practice noticing and observing this experience rather than automatically trying to avoid or decrease it.

Brief Mindfulness Exercises

1. Notice and Name

A few times per day, perhaps around meal times, pause and notice your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations no matter what they are, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Then, practice naming your experience. You can do this by completing the following sentences:

  • I am having the thought(s) that… [insert thoughts here]
  • I am feeling… [insert feelings here]
  • My body/specific body part, shoulders, stomach, back, etc., is feeling [insert physical sensation words here]

By pausing and tuning into what we are thinking and feeling, you create the option of using other useful coping skills and engaging in purposeful and helpful behaviors.

2. STOP Skill

  • Stop and slow your breathing: Whatever you are doing, simply stop. Take a few slow breaths, and mindfully observe the breath flowing in and flowing out. Notice the physical sensations of your breath as it moves in and out of your body, your chest and/or belly rising and falling. This will help you to shift out of autopilot mode and connect with the present moment, here and now.
  • Take note: While staying connected to your breathing, take note of your experience at this moment. Notice what you are thinking (perhaps saying “thinking” to yourself). Notice what you are feeling. (Take a moment to name the feelings that are here.) Notice any physical sensations in your body. See if you can practice acknowledging and noticing your experience, even if it is unwanted or unpleasant. Practice being curious about your experience rather than judgmental.

Mindfulness Essential Reads

  • Open up: Practice opening to your experience, allowing it to be whatever it is in this moment. See your thoughts and feelings for what they are (things that come and go) and give them space. Breathe into any sensations of discomfort, tension, or resistance. Not to get rid of the sensations, but to practice relaxing into your experience, holding it in friendly awareness. Try saying to yourself, “It’s okay. Whatever it is, it’s okay. Let me feel it.”
  • Proceed mindfully and pursue your values: Mindfully consider how you would like to move forward in this moment. If it feels helpful, ask yourself, “What is best for me, for others, and for the situation I’m in? How would I like to act, so that I can look back and think my response was helpful?” Going forward, see if you can allow what is most meaningful and important to guide you.

It is helpful to practice the STOP exercise when emotional intensity is increasing, when feeling overwhelmed, or when you recognize that it would be helpful to take a moment to ground yourself and be more fully present (vs. caught in your head).

3. Mindful Breathing

Mindful breathing is the practice of fully tuning into the sensation of your breath as you breathe, of noticing the air moving in and out of your body.

To practice, pause and focus your awareness on wherever you notice your breath. It may be in your nose, your chest, your belly, etc. You may notice the sensations of slight stretching in your chest and/or belly as it rises with each inhale and gently collapses with each exhale.

Notice the sensations of your breath as the breath first enters your body on the inhale and follow the sensations all the way through as the breath leaves your body on the exhale. There is no need to try to control or change your breathing in any way—simply let the breath breathe itself and focus on the physical sensations of the breath moving in and out of the body.

By practicing mindfulness skills, you are helping yourself connect with the present moment over and over again. The more you are connected with the present moment, the more flexible you are in how you respond to your thoughts and emotions, and the helpful behaviors you practice vs. being stuck in unhelpful patterns.

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