Mindfulness Meditation Advice for the Anxious and Distracted

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Two things that are true: First, if you’re naturally anxious and always feel distracted, mindfulness meditation will probably help. And second: Mindfulness meditation isn’t going to solve all of your problems. It’s not going to patch your flat tire, land you a job, or fix your relationship. It isn’t a solution as much as it is a tool, an approach. Simply put, it’s a mindset that can help build certain aspects of your mental health.

But if it’s your goal to pay more attention to the present, act less impulsively, or make more deliberate decisions, then your goal requires mindfulness. It isn’t necessarily about being happier; it’s simply a way to approach everyday tasks with more presence, and it’s worth figuring out how to be a little better at it. Here’s how to get better at mindfulness meditation, arranged by increasing levels of commitment.

How to be good at mindfulness:

To add just a wee bit more mindfulness into your life, try embracing silence. If you usually listen to podcasts during a commute or while you’re taking the shower, try turning them off. It’s an easy way to focus on the moment instead.

If you want to meditate your way to mindfulness, start with one minute. “I always recommend starting with one minute of stillness and breathing to get the habit started,” Ongaro says. Sit with your eyes closed for 60 seconds and try to focus on your breathing. “It’s simple enough that you can do it every day and a low enough bar that you’ll actually do it.” Once you’ve gotten into the habit, it’s easier to add five to ten minutes of meditation.

Dr. Emily Edlynn, a clinical psychologist in Oak Park, Illinois, says it’s important to pick the right time of day, which, for most people, is right before bed. “I also find that beginners also respond best to guided meditations because as the brain learns to settle down, it helps to have a voice to listen to and focus on.” Use an app like Headspace or Calm as a guide.

Amanda Stemen is a licensed therapist who runs a practice centered around mindfulness in Los Angeles. She says the easiest way to get started with meditation is to practice what she calls the one breath. “Which is exactly what it sounds like, taking one breath at a time and that is it.” Stemen says. “To practice this, it helps to have an anchor behavior, such as taking one breath every time you stop at a red light or when your cell phone dings with a message. Some people will set a gentle chiming alarm on their phone to go off at different times during the day and take a breath when they hear that.”

The idea is to choose an anchor that reoccurs throughout the day. It’s like an ongoing reminder to be present. “This creates many one-second mindful meditative moments throughout the day, which added together increases mindfulness,” Stemen says.

How to be better at mindfulness:

If you want to take your mindfulness up a notch, pick one general area in your life to approach with more intention. “I’m a fan of focusing on changing one area of your life at a time, rather than trying to “do it all,” said Cait Flanders, author of The Year of Less. “So I would say dedicating some time to applying mindfulness techniques to just one area is the best place to start.”

For example, in her book, Flanders recounts her challenge to not shop for an entire year so she could learn to manage and spend her money better and more consciously. She’s also taken month-long breaks from social media or television. “The goal isn’t to cut all of these things out of your life forever. It’s to simply hit pause and make sure you’re doing things intentionally rather than acting impulsively,” she explains.

If you have a hard time sitting still, active mindfulness meditation can be helpful. In Stemen’s practice, she incorporates mindful walking, hiking, and running, helping clients understand they can practice this meditation with any activity they choose. “Ironically, chores are a great way to practice this,” Stemen says. “Or other activities with repetitive movements that don’t require a lot of active thought.”  You could also try meditative movement like Tai Chi or yoga.

To reap even more benefits of meditation, consider getting together with a group. “The first time I went to a meditation center and sat in silence with a group of about 20 people, it absolutely blew my mind,” Ongaro said. “You don’t need to go to a meditation center to meditate, but doing so on a weekly basis will absolutely help keep you focused and energized around the practice.”

How to be even better at mindfulness:

We tend to think as mindfulness as a solution: something we’re working toward, something we can achieve and master. Mindfulness is not a destination, says Ongaro, but more of a lifelong practice, a different way of approaching the way you live. In our stressful, jam-packed lives, intentional living so much easier said than done, and in some ways, it’s a privilege to find the space and time for it — it’s much more difficult to be mindful if you’re juggling a few jobs and struggling to pay rent, for example.

Still, understanding that mindfulness is an approach, not a solution, is perhaps the first step in fully incorporating it into your life. It helps to think of mindfulness as strengthening a muscle, an ongoing habit. “The more you practice, the easier it gets, and the better and more quickly the brain responds.” Edlynn says. “It’s like building a new muscle at the gym — you can’t weight lift for one week and expect a bigger bicep.”

Redesigning your environment can work, too. Ongaro has suggested creating some sort of friction that slows you down, forcing you to think about the task at hand. For example, let’s say you want to be more mindful with your money and stop mindlessly adding stuff to your Amazon cart. An easy way to create friction would be to unlink your credit card to Amazon, which makes it a little more difficult to buy stuff and forces you to think twice about your purchase.

It’s not just about creating friction, but also building an environment that encourages you to take more time for things you enjoy. “Do what you can to have designated spaces for particular activities, where you know you’ll go to practice piano, plan blog posts, or read to your kids,” Ongaro suggests. “If you create the space for it, you’re more likely to follow through especially after substantial repetition.”

Finally, if you want to take your meditation to the next level and change your experience with worry and anxiety, try sitting with it, “fully experiencing the physical sensations associated with that,” Stemen says. You might notice you’re sweating, or that you have a faster heart rate or an empty feeling in your stomach. Of course, these thoughts are never easy to sit with, but that’s kind of the point. “The more people learn to sit with uncomfortable feelings the easier it will become until they quickly disappear without much thought,” Stemen says.

Meditation Advice for the Anxious and Distracted