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Mindfulness for Mental Health

‘Mindfulness’ is a buzzword that has been gaining popularity, especially in the context of depression and anxiety. But what is mindfulness? And what does it have to do with mental health? Great questions!  

Mindfulness is the state of being fully engaged in the moment, focused on the now. It means seeing the present moment without judgment, noticing thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations with curiosity and acceptance, not trying to change them. It can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, any time!  You can eat mindfully, walk mindfully, even play video games mindfully. 

A National Library of Medicine study shows mindfulness has multiple benefits including reducing anxiety and depression, enhancing cognitive functioning, reducing impulsivity, and improving self-awareness. Let’s look at some specific ways that mindfulness helps us process anxious or depressive emotions and learn some exercises to teach our kids! 

Slow Down to Think

Life events are not the actual cause of anxiety; it is our thinking about the events that causes us to worry. Two people can experience the same situation and react differently depending on their perspective or interpretation. The goal of mindfulness is not to eliminate these thoughts, but to calmly notice them as they pop up and change our relationship with them, then make a thoughtful choice about how to rationally manage the situation. Being mindful allows us to have more control over our behavior, to take time to stop before doing something we might regret. Mindful awareness helps us make a choice based on information, rather than emotion; it allows us to consider the consequences of our choices, or the consequences of not acting and avoiding. 

Self-Compassion and Empowerment

Mindfulness can also help us develop a more compassionate and accepting attitude towards ourselves and our emotions. Instead of judging ourselves for feeling anxious or sad, we can learn to accept these feelings as a natural part of being human and respond to ourselves with kindness and understanding. We can view them as “information” and use that information to take action. Discomfort can motivate us to make positive changes, leading us to feel empowered, rather than victimized by circumstances.   

Pleasure in Experience

Being present and in the moment increases our ability to experience pleasure, which can also help combat depression and anxiety. If I am on vacation stressing out about the pile of work that is waiting for me in the office when I get back, my ability to enjoy the vacation is decreased. If my mind is stuck in the past, obsessing over a difficult conversation I had with my boss the day before I left, I am not fully appreciating the present moment. Intentionally practicing mindfulness and asking the mind to focus on the present moment helps us take advantage of the positive things that are happening around us. 

Teaching Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness regularly can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, so teaching your children this skill will help them cope with many life struggles. It can also foster increased self-awareness and attentional control. A simple mindfulness exercise involves asking the child to verbalize what they are thinking in the moment, to describe their train of thought. At first, they might respond with discomfort: “this is boring… I don’t like this.” Great! The child is noticing their thoughts. The challenge here is to sit with those thoughts, sit with the boredom without trying to change it or distract themselves from it. This exercise teaches children that feelings come and go, like clouds in the sky. By sitting with uncomfortable emotions, children can learn to tolerate them and realize that they will pass. 

Another common exercise involves children observing their environment using all five senses. Ask them to name five things they can see, four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can touch. Ask them to notice how the shadows or sunlight change the color of the objects around them. Encourage them to identify sounds close to them and far away. Have them practice putting their observations into words without interpretation or judgment. For example, rather than saying that something smells bad (judgment), ask them to describe it (e.g. “smells like fish and gasoline”).    

Want more? Check out the “Leaves on a Stream” exercise below – a great way to help kids visualize how their thoughts can come and go.   

Mindfulness can help us observe our thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them, reminding ourselves that emotions come and go, like waves on the beach. For children, learning this practice early on can lay a foundation of mental stability and coping skills that they will rely on into adulthood.  

Leaves on a Stream

Find a comfortable position, and either close your eyes or fix your eyes on a spot, whichever you prefer.

Imagine you’re sitting by the side of a gently flowing stream, and there are leaves flowing past on the surface of the stream. Imagine it however you like — it’s your imagination. (Pause 10 seconds.)

Now, for the next few minutes, take every thought that pops into your head, place it on a leaf, and let it float on by. Do this regardless of whether the thoughts are positive or negative, pleasurable or painful. Even if they’re the most wonderful thoughts, place them on the leaf and let them float on by. (Pause 10 seconds.)

If your thoughts stop, just watch the stream. Sooner or later your thoughts will start up again. (Pause 20 seconds.)

Allow the stream to flow at its own rate. Don’t speed it up. You’re not trying to wash the leaves away— you’re allowing them to come and go in their own good time. (Pause 20 seconds.)

If your mind says, This is stupid or I can’t do it, place those thoughts on a leaf. (Pause 20 seconds.)

If a leaf gets stuck, let it hang around. Don’t force it to float away. (Pause 20 seconds.)  

If a difficult feeling arises, such as boredom or impatience, simply acknowledge it. Say to yourself, “Here’s a feeling of boredom” or “Here’s a feeling of impatience.” Then place those words on a leaf, and let the leaf float on by.

From time to time, your thoughts will hook you, and you’ll lose track of the This is normal and natural, and it will keep happening. As soon as you realize it’s happened, gently acknowledge it and then start the exercise again.

(source: Russ Harris, ACT Made Simple)

If you or a family member needs behavioral and/or mental health treatment, but aren’t sure where to start, read more here or call 888-764-4161. We’re here to support!


Melissa Backus is a licensed clinical social worker with PM Behavioral Health in Florida. She has been providing psychoeducation and counseling to children and families for over 15 years in both the acute inpatient and outpatient settings, helping them harmoniously navigate crises. Her experience includes offering crisis management, family counseling and psychotherapy to children and adolescents who face mild to severe mental health conditions. Melissa approaches her sessions with a playful style, and her goal is to help the healing journey be manageable and enjoyable.