Make time for mindfulness

By Ashna Gupta, For The Pitt News

Do you ever find yourself trying to study for chemistry and then you remember you have an assignment due in another class? Or do you remember all the errands you need to run while trying to get work done?

It’s a natural human tendency to be doing something while our minds are in another place. Practicing mindfulness, however, brings us to the present moment and allows us to focus all of our attention on the task on hand.

Mindfulness is a word a lot of us have heard. But what does it really entail? How is it practiced? To me, mindfulness is essentially being aware of the present moment. To be in the present moment, it’s necessary to acknowledge your surroundings and your emotions.

Hallie Stotsky, the adviser of Pitt’s Stress Free Zone, talked about how she defines and practices mindfulness.

“[Mindfulness is] being in the moment without judging yourself,” Stotsky said. “The key component of being mindful is focusing on the breath.”

I was overwhelmed by a bad breakup two years ago and went to the counseling center to seek help. I couldn’t eat without reminding myself I was eating alone. I couldn’t spend a peaceful Friday night without wondering what my ex was doing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was dealing with anxiety.

When I sat down in the counselor’s office for the first time, she asked if I would be willing to do a mindfulness exercise to ground myself in the present moment and reduce my anxiety. She told me to sit with my spine upright and my feet grounded in order to maintain good posture while performing the exercise.

She told me to imagine I was sitting at the brink of a river on an autumn afternoon. I saw the leaves turn from green to orange and gently fall to the ground. Some landed on the grass while others landed on the river. The momentum of the river carried the leaves with it. She told me to imagine that the leaves were all of my thoughts and worries. She asked me to acknowledge them and let them cross over me as they moved in the direction of the river’s flow.

After about five minutes, she guided me through a full body scan that brought my focus to my body. She told me to feel the pressure of my heels against the ground. With each inhale, she asked me to notice how my lungs filled with air like a balloon. With each exhale she asked me to bring my attention to how my lungs contract.

I immediately felt more relaxed, and my stress levels had decreased dramatically, but I also remember walking out of her office thinking, “What was the point of that? What did I gain?” It wasn’t until I took the time to research mindfulness that I began to pay more attention to habits such as sitting, walking and breathing. Due to our fast-paced lifestyles, it is hard to give attention to habits like these that are ingrained in our daily lives.

“Breathing meditations are good when you need something tangible,” Stotsky said. “Your stress level goes down and so does your body temperature.”

I learned that what I practiced with my counselor is a form of meditation known as visualization. When performing a visualized meditation, I go to a safe place and work on my breath without consciously thinking about it.

Practicing mindfulness can be done anytime, anywhere and for any amount of time. However, when trying to make mindfulness a habit, you must accept that you need to religiously follow the routine you have set for yourself if you want to improve your mental health. Practicing mindfulness is like learning a new language — if you don’t practice it, you forget it. So how do you practice it and make it a habit?

I don’t necessarily make time for meditation. I choose to do it instead of something else that isn’t as mindful. For example, when I’m on the 26th floor of the Cathedral waiting for the elevator to take me to the ground floor, I don’t open up Facebook or Instagram.

Instead, I notice the position I am in. Am I standing? Am I sitting? I notice how my shoes feel on the ground. I pay special attention to the pressure exerted by my heels against the insole of my shoes. Then I shift my attention to my breathing. Is it faster than usual? Slower? Can I feel my diaphragm fill with oxygen?

Before I know it, the elevator doors open, giving me another chance to meditate. I have about 60 seconds in the elevator. Instead of spending that time on my phone, I use it to notice the airy feeling beneath my feet as the elevator zips down.

I also practice mindfulness by allocating 30 minutes of my time every day to yoga. It allows me to train my breath — focusing on inhaling and exhaling while moving my body into different positions accordingly.

Stotsky also shared other ways to practice mindfulness and make it a habit. She recommends joining an exercise class, using a guided meditation app or even taking daily walks.

“Most of the counselors utilize mindfulness in their treatments and practice. Some of them make up their own guided meditation recordings that they use to practice mindfulness,” Stotsky said.

Stotsky also recommends utilizing the Stress Free Zone on the third floor of William Pitt Union. It has many resources to help students practice mindfulness, including a massage chair that is paired with a 20-minute mindfulness audio that guides you to focus on your breath. The Stress Free Zone also has mindfulness walks around campus to bring students’ attentions to their surroundings and their bodies.

Practicing mindfulness every day has lowered my stress level and has helped me feel more in control of my emotions. I’ve started to appreciate my present and look forward to the future, rather than immersing myself in regrets and worries from the past.

Ashna Gupta writes about mental health for The Pitt News and has a blog of her own called Peace of Mind.