We have all been affected, in some way, by the devastating impact of a crisis. Whether it’s close to home or abroad, human suffering, instability and the threat of war have all taken a toll on the mental health of so many around the globe.
Whether anxiety, depression, addictions, behavioral problems in children, or marital and relationship problems, more and more Americans are experiencing mental, emotional and spiritual challenges that are leaving them feeling hopeless, overwhelmed, angry, exhausted, and powerless! If you are feeling this way, please know that you are not alone.
As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Therapist in the field of mental health counseling, I address these challenges every day with my clients. Although they can be complex, I often start by teaching some basic, but powerful and effective life skills that I believe are helpful in coping today – practicing mindfulness skills and gratitude.
Mindfulness is the concept of taking hold of one’s mind and learning to concentrate and control our attention on what we choose, rather than allowing our thoughts, emotions or experiences to control us. This creates “containment” in our mind and a greater sense of peace. Practicing mindfulness enables us to slow down, be more aware of our experiences and intentionally pay more attention. It also allows us to be more flexible in our thinking, act more skillfully and better tolerate our emotions. We gain a greater sense of control and acceptance when we can be more proactive vs. reactive!
Here are a few examples of basic mindfulness exercises that you can practice daily:
- Breathing: Practice “Diaphragmatic Deep Breathing” (breathe in through your nose to the count of eight, while expanding your belly full with air, then exhaling through your mouth to the count of eight, feeling your belly flatten) to ground and calm yourself. Here is an example.
- Focus on Senses: Take some time to just notice what you experience through your five senses – what do you see, hear, smell, feel and taste. Use the “5,4,3,2,1 method” – name five things you see, name four things you hear, name three things you smell, name two things you feel and name one thing you taste. Engaging your five senses fully in this process is very self-soothing.
- Listen to your favorite song/album: Try to block out any other distractions and intently listen to every word, instrument or sound in your favorite song/album. Engross yourself completely in the music.
- 10 Details: Take the time to pause, then just observe and describe 10 details of the space or people around you.
- Holding a Feeling: Identify a feeling that you are experiencing and just hold onto it. Don’t try to push it away or judge yourself for feeling it. Hold it, feel it in your body, describe it and allow yourself to tolerate it. Usually a difficult feeling will diminish in intensity the longer you hold onto and tolerate the feeling.
- The room you know so well: Observe and describe details of a room that you know well, but have never noticed before. It’s amazing what you will see for the first time if you pay attention.
- One task at a time: Practice “one mindfulness” by doing only one task at a time (i.e. folding the laundry) and give that task 100% of your attention. When you are finished with it, go on to the next. This is the opposite of “multi-tasking,” which is actually very unhealthy for our brain and increases stress.
- Prayer / Meditation: If you are religious or spiritual, engage in prayer, then sit in silence in God’s presence. When random thoughts come into your mind, don’t ignore them or resist them – just observe those thoughts without trying to hold onto them, then let them fade away (like watching leaves slowly float by on a stream).
- Practice Radical Acceptance: “Radical Acceptance” is the concept of being able to accept the things that are not in your control or ability to change and instead focus your mind on the things that are in your control to work on and change. Acceptance does not mean that you condone, agree with or like those things that you are accepting. It is simply that those things are not in your control. It is shifting your mind from a place of powerlessness to a place of feeling a healthy sense of power and control.
Practicing gratitude daily is another simple but powerful tool that enables us to steer our mind in a different direction. Practicing gratitude gives us the opportunity to see our experience from a healthier perspective, especially when we are in a place of suffering. Whether you write in a gratitude journal or verbally acknowledge at least one thing that you are grateful for each day, practicing gratitude can open up a wellspring of peace and joy and greater acceptance.
Janice D. MacKenzie, LICSW is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker for Catholic Charities New Hampshire’s Mental Health Counseling Services, with 20 years of experience in the field of mental health. Janice provides counseling services to teens, adults and couples through a strengths-based, cognitive-behavioral and client-centered approach to therapy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.