Mindfulness Q&A with Richard W. Sears

Richard W. Sears, PsyD, PhD, MBA, ABPP, is a clinical psychologist and speaker. He is clinical/research faculty at the University of Cincinnati Center for Integrative Health & Wellness and volunteer associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences with the UC College of Medicine. He regularly conducts MBCT groups at Alliance Integrative Medicine, and also offers online mindfulness groups. He is also a 5th degree black belt and Zen teacher and author of Building Competence in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.

What can a busy person do to quickly and easily improve their mental health?

What makes a person feel busy is the sense of needing to rush to the next thing. Their minds are always thinking about what is coming in the future. While it is important to take time to plan, and to learn from the past, the truth is, you are only ever in this present moment. Constantly worrying about the 18 reports you haven't yet written will interfere with your ability to write the one you are currently working on. Compulsively worrying about all the other meetings you have later today will prevent you from efficiently completing the meeting you are in at the moment. A busy person can practice returning their attention to the present by asking, "What am I doing right now?" throughout the day. Reminding ourselves of where we are and what we are doing now, and taking a deep breath, helps prevent the continuous activation of the stress response. The more we practice doing this, the more joy we can discover in our moments, and the more we can genuinely engage with the people around us, even when we are "busy."

How can mindfulness help those struggling with stress and/or anxiety?

The first step is simply to acknowledge how stressed we are right now. This starts by pausing and checking in with ourselves more often. We tend to get lost in our heads, in our thinking, and there is no end to future problems we can imagine or past regrets we can ruminate about. By slowing down a little, and noticing how our bodies are feeling, we come back into the present moment. We might notice our shoulders are getting tense, and take a few seconds to stretch a little and relax. We can remind ourselves that all our worrisome thoughts are in our heads, and while there are times we really need to think about things, we can more often practice coming back into the reality of what we are doing right now.

How does your tendency to make negative judgments about your experiences alter your overall sense of wellbeing?

We certainly need judgments to determine if something is good for us, or if something might harm someone else, but continuous, compulsive judgments interfere with what we are experiencing right now. If I choose to spend time with my family, but can't stop thinking about work, or something else I "should" be doing, or somewhere else I "should" be, I won't really be present with my family. Through practice, we can learn to temporarily suspend the constant judgments and be more in touch with the present moment.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness simply means paying attention. It involves becoming more aware of what is happening in the present – what our senses are telling us, what our thoughts and emotions are doing, and what is going on in our bodies. This counters the tendency of our brains to operate on "automatic pilot," and allows us to be more conscious in how we relate to our experiences, both the joys and the sorrows.

How can you tell if mindfulness is a good fit for you?

Mindfulness just means awareness, so who would not want to be more aware of what's going on in their lives? If you are struggling with something difficult, more awareness, even if you don't like what you find, is important to know what to do next. For the enjoyable moments in our lives, like being with family or noticing a beautiful sunset, we will have a richer experience if we are actually present, and not lost in our heads.
Certainly, not everyone will want to sit in a formal meditation posture and practice mindfulness in a traditional way. While formal practice can be helpful as a way of exercising your brain, you can practice paying attention to what you are doing all throughout your day, whether taking a walk, gardening, being with friends, or even working.

What are some key resources for improving mindfulness skills and overall wellbeing?

One great resource is the UMass Center for Mindfulness, which lists all of the instructors, certified to teach Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, an 8-week research-based program for training mindfulness skills. My own website, www.psych-insights.com, has free audio and video recordings, and I will also be announcing online mindfulness training courses.

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