When we think of the word mindfulness, a number of definitions rise to the top, such as being present and thoughtful. On paper, they sound reasonable but when we add in the element of human behavior and our unpredictable natures, two other words enter the mindful lexicon – reacting and responding. But, how can we integrate these concepts of mindfulness in everyday life?
First, we must understand the difference between reacting and responding. They may seem interchangeable but actually couldn’t be any more different in stressful moments. Reacting to a situation is acting without giving the action itself much thought. It tends to be quick, impulsive, and emotionally driven. Responding to a situation is a more thoughtful action. It is a cool, calm, and collected approach. What if I told you that the simple act of mindfulness could be the key to more positive outcomes from the challenges that life might throw at you?
Reactions vs. Responses
Stressful moments in life are bound to happen no matter what. That is a known fact. When was the last time that you were in a decent mood until a small annoyance or upsetting interaction happened? It had the potential to ruin part, if not all, of your day. For example, let’s say you are stuck in a traffic jam or your neighbor starts a sentence off with “no offense”, and then continues to say something offensive. A reaction to these situations might be snapping, getting defensive, or saying something hurtful. A response would start with accepting the situation for what it is or asking questions to better understand your neighbor and convey your feelings peacefully in return.
Mindfulness as a Solution
When an annoying or hurtful event happens, a thought or emotion first forms. In the examples given, you might think that you always have bad luck with traffic or you could feel hurt by your neighbor’s comment. These thoughts and feelings can take control if you allow them to. How and what you choose to do at this point changes the potential outcome for you. Since reactions are subconsciously fueled by the dominating thought or feeling, they tend to push out any other (perhaps more appropriate) idea or response. It creates a knee-jerk reaction.
However, when you take a moment to practice mindfulness, you can prevent the thought or emotion from controlling your action or mood. This helps you regulate your emotional reaction and allows for the potential of a more desired outcome.
Practice Mindfulness in Everyday Life
Follow these steps when a stressful situation arises:
- Take a moment to breathe.
Try to maintain slow and meaningful breaths. You could try a square breathing technique. For this technique, breathe from the stomach and not the chest. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold again for 4 seconds.
It’s a secret trick that Navy Seals use when they are in very stressful situations because it calms the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This is the fight or flight response system. Becoming aware of your breath will help to bring you back to the present moment. Square breathing also helps regulate and calm the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). This regulates the heart, breathing, and cortisol levels.
- Acknowledge the physical feelings in your body.
Maybe you can feel your shoulders tensing or your face starting to get warm. Do your best to correct the physical sensations that you have control over, such as relaxing your shoulders. Simply just observe the sensations that you cannot immediately control, like your face warming up. Don’t judge these physical feelings, instead, listen to what they are trying to communicate to you. They may indicate stress, anger, or another intense emotional reaction.
If you notice any thoughts starting to come up for you throughout this process, don’t judge them either. Acknowledge that the thoughts exist, allow them to just be, and tuck them away for later. You can accept the present moment by not longer resisting your experience to it.
- Return to the present.
Make 3 observations of your current surroundings. These can be as simple as the rug on the floor or the leaves on a tree. You could even notice smells or sounds that you hear around you. Directing your attention to your surroundings first will help bring you back to the present moment, both slowly and calmly.
- Set your intentions.
What is the desired outcome? If it is to not allow stressful traffic to ruin your day, you can set the intention of acceptance in a situation outside of your control. If you are seeking an outcome where you can voice your hurt and have that acknowledged, you might set the intention of compassion for both yourself and the one who has hurt you. Saying a quick positive affirmation to yourself in regards to your intention can be very beneficial as well. Such as, “I am doing everything that I can in this situation” or “I choose to be curious and compassionate”.
A More Positive Outcome
Giving yourself a moment (or more) of mindfulness can completely change the outcome of your day or the way that your words and actions are received. Doing so can subtly adjust your mood, direction, and message. That thoughtful response paired with a calmer demeanor will help to improve the quality of your everyday life.
Another perk to practicing mindfulness in everyday life is reduced stress levels. To learn more about the importance of stress reduction in your overall health, visit the Institute for Natural Medicine for more information.
Just like with a muscle, the more you use and exercise it, the stronger it will get overtime. Mindfulness will also become easier and feel more natural with each practice. However, it is important to know that this is a lifelong practice. You are a human with continual thoughts and emotions. Expecting to master mindfulness is unrealistic. Therefore, be gentle on yourself as you begin each practice. This is, after all, mindfulness in everyday life.