We hear it time and time again.
“Practice mindfulness daily.”
But what does this really mean?
Determined to take the mystery out of this buzzword, we interviewed mindfulness teacher and psychiatrist Dr. William R. Marchand. An author and go-to person on this topic, Dr, Marchand is a firm believer that mindfulness is an essential part of managing anxiety on a daily basis.
Following is just what he had to say.
Hello, Dr. Marchand. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. First of all, what is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is simply keeping one’s attention focused on the present moment. In a state of mindfulness, we are focused on what’s going on right here-right now. It can be helpful to contrast mindfulness to our normal state of mind, which we call autopilot. In the autopilot state, the mind is going from one thing to another, usually thinking about the past or future. Autopilot can be helpful, but it can also increase anxiety.
That’s interesting. Do we need to do something formal to do this?
Absolutely not. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be a formal thing. In fact, you can be mindful at any time or in any place. It can be as simple as focusing your attention on daily activities like driving, working out, or checking e-mail. In other words, anything can be done mindfully. That said, having a formal mindfulness practice is very helpful to develop the skill to keep our attention focused in the present moment.
What is the goal of mindfulness?
Our goal in a mindfulness practice is to be fully present in each moment. This sounds simple – and it is a very simple concept – but it is a skill that we have to learn. You see, our minds don’t want to stay focused on one thing. Instead, they naturally tend to wander and ruminate. That’s the autopilot thinking. Mindfulness helps us to counter this by keeping our attention where we want it. Really, it’s like learning to swim. The more you practice, the better you get.
How is mindfulness helpful for anxiety?
Mindfulness changes our relationship with anxiety. It’s like flipping a coin. Instead of running from anxiety, we learn to stay present with it. This is different than what we would habitually do. Our natural autopilot reaction to anxiety is to resist. It’s like touching a hot stove. You back away. But in resisting, we only make symptoms worse. By embracing the anxiety itself, we change the way we react. And the more we do this, the less we fear bouts of anxiety. In other words, these symptoms aren’t so scary anymore. They lose power.
How can we begin to develop a mindfulness practice?
You can make mindfulness a routine by developing a daily meditation practice. This is the cornerstone of a mindfulness practice. Through this, we begin to notice when we are on autopilot-and can practice shifting our attention to the present moment. We do this over and over again. Autopilot will always be with us – we just get better and better at noticing it and shining the spotlight of our attention on the now. Think of it like going to the gym. When we go to the gym and lift weights, we call each time we raise the dumbbell a repetition or “rep.” In mindfulness meditation, our reps are noticing that we are on autopilot and gently guiding our attention back to the here and now.
About: William R. Marchand, M.D., is a mindfulness teacher, board-certified psychiatrist and neuroscientist. He is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry, and adjunct assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah. Additionally, he is the Associate Chief of Mental Health and Chief of Psychiatry at the George. E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. He has years of experience treating bipolar disorder, researching the neurobiology of mood and anxiety disorders, and teaching mindfulness. His personal mindfulness practice is in the Soto Zen tradition, in which he is an ordained monk. He is the author of Mindfulness for Bipolar Disorder: How Mindfulness and Neuroscience Can Help You Manage Your Bipolar Symptoms and Depression and Bipolar Disorder: Your Guide to Recovery