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Are you mindful, or is your mind full?

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There’s a simple way to rewire your mind and tackle whatever ails you — stress, anxiety, insomnia, etc. It’s a practice called mindfulness, and it doesn’t require time or money; all you have to do is notice what’s happening around you.

The Indianapolis Recorder consulted with Dr. Courtney Johnson, a neuropsychologist at IU Health Neuroscience Center, to get the lowdown on the technique.


Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper: What does mindfulness mean?

Johnson: Mindfulness is a broad term that generally relates to practices aimed at increasing awareness. Focusing on the sound of one’s footsteps or the crunching of leaves below one’s feet while walking, noting the different colors of leaves, listening to the different sounds of birds and children playing at a park, taking note of the feeling of sunshine or wind on one’s skin are all examples of focusing attention on one’s surroundings, or being mindful of one’s surroundings. Mindfulness can also relate to increasing self-awareness, such as being more attuned to one’s thoughts or emotions.


What are the potential benefits of practicing mindfulness? 

The potential benefits to mindfulness are also broad. Mindfulness can lead to improved mental health (i.e. reduced depression and anxiety). For example, a recent meta-analysis (published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine) demonstrated reduced anxiety, depression, fatigue and fear of cancer recurrence in patients with breast cancer who learned mindfulness-based skills. Mindfulness can also lead to health improvements, such as reducing likelihood of overeating (i.e. mindful eating exercises). Mindfulness is also effective for athletes in improving performance and stamina. Mindfulness practices have even been applied in workplace safety settings to improve compliance with regulations and reduce adverse incidents. I teach many of my patients mindfulness exercises to improve subjective reports of problems focusing.


How does mindfulness fit into an overall mental wellness plan?

Mindfulness can be easily incorporated into one’s mental wellness plan. Apps like Headspace (also available in website form) make it accessible through reminder text messages, guided mindfulness exercises and tracking calendars. This particular app has a Take Ten section with 10 days of 10-minute practices. I explain mindfulness to patients as a way to increase self-awareness to our own benefit. The more aware we are of our thoughts, feelings, physiology, memories/experiences, etc., the more connected we are with our reactions and the more flexibly we are able to move between a variety of responses.


How does one “do” mindfulness? Are there strategies for working it into a busy day?

Mindfulness can be highly individualized. Some people prefer a more active practice such as mindful walking; others may have physical limitations and prefer mindful breathing exercises. I encourage patients to use apps when first learning mindfulness techniques, as there are so many good free apps available, and you can experiment with a range of exercises until you find one that fits your personal needs and preferences. As with most healthy habits, incorporating mindfulness into the daily routine is most likely to be successful. This may mean at the start or end of the day, during the commute to/from work, or combined with another aspect of the daily routine like preparing meals or getting ready for the day. If you miss a day, jump back in the next day. 


What else should people know about mindfulness?

Some people assume that mindfulness means meditation and then also assume you must ascribe to a particular worldview or belief system for mindfulness to be effective. This is not the case. Mindfulness is an accessible skill that anyone (children, adolescents, adults, older adults) can learn. It does take practice — few people report being “good” at it right away. In our Western culture of always being busy and multi-tasking, focusing our attention to one thing fully in the present moment can be quite the shift, but it is something you can learn.

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