Exercises in Mindfulness

Distressing, intrusive and overwhelming experiences/symptoms are an all too common for an anxious or traumatized mind. My clients often report feeling that they do not feel in control of their thoughts. As our thoughts and emotions are reliant upon one another, it makes sense that overwhelming or disturbing thoughts may result in a downward spiral of one’s mood.

The principal of mindfulness is centered in the practice of Zen Buddhism. Mindfulness is a practice. It’s not something that you all of a sudden master in a moment’s time. The objective is learning to be in the present moment. As our minds have many tasks and responsibilities to carry out throughout the day, it is understandable that they often become focused on ruminating on the past and worrying about the future. In regards to an individual who experiences frequent symptoms of anxiety or PTSD, the mind becomes especially overactive and troubled. The mind often becomes focused on distressing experiences in the past, and distracted by the possible worrisome events of the future. Mindfulness can therefore be an effective strategy for calming the mind, slowing and halting distracting and unhelpful thoughts, and improving mood.

Here are some simple exercises in Mindfulness. Practice these in a non-distracting environment if possible. This means turning off all distracting technology (i.e., the phone, TV, and radio) and stepping into a room that is quiet and somewhat private. These exercises require practice, so don’t get too frustrated if you find them challenging at first. With time, they will become easier.

Alternating Awareness

Find yourself in a comfortable position. This may be seated in a chair or on the floor (legs crossed preferably if on the floor), or lying on a comfortable surface. Close your eyes or allow your vision to become focused on one spot in front of you.

Begin by brining your awareness to your breath. Simply notice your breath without attempting to change it. Take a moment to simply experience your lungs inhaling and exhaling, your chest and stomach rising and falling with your breath.

Now bring you awareness into the room. Scan your external environment. Notice any sounds you hear in the room or outside of it. Notice the temperature, any smells you experience. See if you can get a feel for the space in the room with your eyes closed. Stay here and allow your senses to experience the room or space you are in.

Now turn your awareness internally. Again, use your senses to experience your body. Notice how your body feels today. Scan your body from head to toe, slowly, identifying any spaces that you experience discomfort or comfort. Notice the temperature of your body, the space inside of your body. See if you can feel your heart beat. Notice how your mind feels.

Now alternate your awareness, at your own pace and slowly, between experiencing the external and internal. Notice if one feels more comfortable than the other. Notice if you have a preference.

When you are ready, open your eyes and notice any difference you sense as compared to when you began this exercise.

Mindfulness in Daily Living

When you find yourself engaged in the simple tasks of life (laundry, washing dishes, cleaning your house, etc.) is when I ask you to practice this exercise. Our minds often chatter about when we are doing such tasks that require little thought…those tasks that you simply “do” rather than “experience”. Next time you find yourself in one of these tasks bring your mind to the present. Describe to yourself what you are doing. For example: Notice yourself turning on the water to do dishes. Place your hands under that water and notice the temperature and sensation of water running over your hands. Describe the first dish you are going to wash to yourself. Maybe it’s a plate, with a blue ring around the outside, it is chipped on one side slightly, it feels heavy in your hand. Then experience yourself washing it. Notice the sponge, its color and texture. The bubbles that generate from the soap, etc.

This exercise often seems a bit trivial and perhaps ridiculous to people at first. After all, what’s so special about washing dishes? It’s not about feeling great or enjoying these tasks. The goal is to teach your mind to just focus on the now.

Mindfulness in Walking

Similar to the exercise above, this exercise is about being in the moment as you are taking a walk or running. As you are walking or running bring your awareness to your environment. Notice your feet on the ground, the sound they generate. Describe what you see around you. For example: Those roses are pink, there is a dog barking in the distance, I can hear the sound of the highway, that house is blue, the sky is cloudy, etc.

It’s difficult to center your mind in such ways because our minds are used to chatting away. One way to calm your mind is to simply describe your environment as outlined in this exercise. Use your senses and simply describe what you sense to yourself. Use all senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing, and an extra one is emotionally sensing).

Remember, this is a PRACTICE. You will get better over time. It takes dedication and awareness. Eventually you will learn to calm your mind, which in turn positively influences your mood. After you practice notice the difference, even if it’s slight, in how you feel after as compared to how you felt when you began. Even the smallest differences can result in profound effects.

I encourage you to develop your own mindfulness strategies. All you have to do is base them on the simple principal of becoming present in the moment. Good luck!

© Copyright 2010 by Rebecca K Wilson, MSW, LCSW, EMDR2, therapist in Denver, Colorado. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Sandy


    June 29th, 2010 at 11:33 AM

    I think many assume mindfulness is only to be utilized in the calm, quietest moments of your experience. You can be “in the moment” when you’re experiencing pain or hurtful feelings, fun and laughter, alone or in company, sitting down to a meal or at a ball game or riding the subway. It’s a life decision, not a whim.

  • mike


    June 29th, 2010 at 12:37 PM

    It’s amazing how much we miss when we don’t practice mindfulness. I have ADHD and learned mindfulness to help me with my distractedness, which is a common ADHD trait. The teachings are a boon to anyone who has problems with concentrating for extended periods.

  • colleen


    June 29th, 2010 at 1:29 PM

    Why would I want to notice the dishes or the grass? Sorry, I don’t get this nor the benefit. When I’m washing dishes or out walking that’s my time to daydream more than anything. I really don’t want to pay attention to what I’m doing because those are the very times I come up with ideas. Does that make sense?

  • Theodre Davids

    Theodre Davids

    June 29th, 2010 at 2:19 PM

    I often find myself thinking of something other than what I actually have on my mind and this happens even when I am doing something that is very important.

    This habit of mine has made me commit a few small mistakes a couple of times but I am still scared of this because I do not want any blunder to happen due to this habit of mine.I really need to learn mindfulness and be able to concentrate on the thing at hand.I need help in this issue.Any advice will be much appreciated.

  • Rex


    June 29th, 2010 at 4:39 PM

    Mindfulness is also helpful as a mirror of how you’re feeling. When you pay attention to aches and pains or emotions, you’re more likely to do something to relieve yourself of, and deal with, the less pleasant sensations than if you bury them under mundane tasks. If it’s physical, see a dr.

  • Douglas


    June 29th, 2010 at 5:27 PM

    Maybe they don’t practice mindfulness because they don’t want to feel. I’ll stick with the daily drudge. It’s comfortable, predictable and safe.

  • Kerry


    June 29th, 2010 at 9:18 PM

    You want to lead your life playing it safe and predictable Douglas? That’s like sleepwalking. I feel sorry for you.
    Thanks for the exercises, Rebecca. I’d heard about mindfulness but didn’t know how to apply the technique in practical terms. That’s very helpful!

  • Lloyd


    June 29th, 2010 at 9:49 PM

    Mindfulness brings much contentment. When you observe your thoughts you realize how many are driven by the past and aimed at the future. That doesn’t leave much space for the here and now to be appreciated! Even if all you can appreciate is that you have your senses to appreciate life with if you so choose, that’s a start. Really notice your sense of touch, hearing, sight and so on. Bring gratitude to the table as well.

  • Olive


    June 29th, 2010 at 10:34 PM

    Even without mindfulness I’m very sensitive to what’s going on around me. Noise, even low level ones like the hum of air conditioning, invade my thinking. I need to wear earphones sometimes just to stop all the auditory input from becoming too much and that’s when I’m at home with no tv or radio. Just me and my dogs. I can’t handle the noise level of crowds. Would mindfulness not be a good idea for me then? I struggle with my attention span as it is and would like to improve that.

  • maddie


    June 30th, 2010 at 4:27 AM

    I have been trying to bring a little more mindfulness into my own life because goodness knows I need the calming and the healing that this can bring. Where I get bogged down though is not letting the past creep in. I know that I need to focus more on the here and the now but that is difficult knowing that deep down I feel like the past is what has made me who I am so how do I let go of that?

  • Joseph


    June 30th, 2010 at 10:02 AM

    I have read quite a lot about mindfulness and I certainly believe it has the potential to solve a lot of modern-day problems like lack of concentration and many other related issues.It is bound to help people in today’s world wherein such issues are quite widespread and there seems to be no clear solution…until now that is :)

  • Debbie


    June 30th, 2010 at 3:23 PM

    I find minfulness to be great most of the time. However, I have PTSD and sometimes meditation,/mindfulness makes things worse for me. As I am in the mass during a flashback, all one can do is endure the storm. Mindfulness can help sometimes once the flashback is over, and energy has been restored. Having PTSD is a total loss of control and paralyzing.

  • Star


    July 3rd, 2010 at 1:58 PM

    Drop all the wishes and regrets and appreciate what you have and who you are today, right now, in this moment. You’re a spiritual being in a human body. Mindfulness is one way to
    feel that and when you have mastered this, you’ll never want to go back to your old ways.

    Go out there and study a tree for ten minutes. See the bark, feel the texture, look at the leaves, note the veined appearance or the color. Look up for a bird’s or squirrel’s nest.

    When was the last time you looked upwards instead of straight ahead or down?

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