Mindfulness Over Matter

Janet McCutchen, Clinical Counselor and Certified Employee Assistance Professional at Vanderbilt, talks about what mindfulness is and how we can use the practice of mindfulness to address the many emotions we might experience during the holidays.

Begin Transcript

Rosemary  Cope:  Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness wellcast.  I am Rosemary Cope with Work/Life Connections.  I am here today with my colleague, Janet McCutchen.  Janet received her Bachelor's and Master's of Science in Clinical Psychology from the University of Memphis.  She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and certified Employee Assistance Professional.  Many of us know a seasonal song that says, "It is the most wonderful time of the year," but with the extra activities for our holidays, or the loneliness for some, we can also feel overworked, overwhelmed and overindulged.  Today, we would like to offer suggestions about building internal stamina by flexing our mindfulness muscles.  Janet, many people have heard the term "mindfulness," but can't really define it, or they think that it has something to do with the practice of yoga.  Would you tell our listeners what it is and how it is helpful in everyday life?

Janet McCutchen:  Mindfulness is actually the practice of focusing on the present moment while we acknowledge and accept our thoughts and feelings without judgment, and mindfulness practice might include doing something like yoga or meditation, but mindfulness is not an elaborate sort of skill.  It is a practice, and it takes effort to learn how to become more mindful, but often that is what people think of if you introduce the concept of mindfulness as, oh, my goodness, this is some sort of esoteric thing.  But essentially, that is what mindfulness is.

Rosemary Cope:  So, with that definition of mindfulness, what are some things that people can do to integrate that concept into the holidays?

Janet McCutchen:  Well, mindfulness doesn't really necessarily take a lot of time or involve an elaborate strategy.  Let's say, for example, during the holidays when people are very busy, and let's say you are out running some errands or shopping, one thing that you can do is take a moment, you are stuck in traffic, and take three deep breaths when you are stopping at a red light, which can certainly do a number of things.  It can help relax and focus.  It can also give us an opportunity to slow down and focus on what's around us.  So, in the midst of taking the three deep breaths, also what we can do is begin to notice three things around us - for example, three colors around us, or three sounds in the moment.  If we will slow down and focus, that is a mindfulness moment.  So, just by doing that, you are practicing mindfulness.  It doesn't necessarily have to be elaborate.  The other piece to that is accepting our thoughts and feelings without judgment, which can be hard for a lot of us.  People work very hard.  They are very focused on doing their best, naturally.  So, I think the self-criticism that can come from just hearing that statement "without judgment" is a challenge, because we want to do it right.  But the goal of mindfulness is not to think about doing it right.  It is just beginning the practice of it, and as you saw a moment ago in those examples I gave you, any of us can do that.  Learning not to judge is important.  If we are in the midst of a mindfulness practice and our thoughts wander, or we wonder if we are doing it right, the goal, then, is just to kind of bring ourselves back to the present and again start focusing - taking the deep breath, once again, for three deep breaths, looking at several things that are around us, several colors that we see, those kinds of things, and if our mind wanders, just kind of bringing it back to center.

Rosemary Cope:  If I am in the middle of traffic on the interstate, which happens frequently in Nashville, and I start to practice the breathing, or I do notice the colors, what might I expect to receive from doing that?

Janet McCutchen:  What you should receive, if you are in the moment, is you won't be doing two things - you won't be ruminating about the past or anticipating the future.  That is what stirs our emotional pot.  That is what lends us to become anxious or sad, is if we are ruminating and reminiscing and thinking about something that happened in the past, or we are anxious in anticipating the future.  If you are in that moment in traffic, and you are having this mindfulness experience, what you will notice is your breathing will become deeper and your body will become more calm and relaxed if you are out there, hopefully, slowing down while thinking of this, but you won't necessarily be white-knuckling the steering wheel.  You won't be necessarily as anxious or irritable.  Those are the kinds of immediate feelings that you should experience with practice.

Rosemary Cope:  Is it correct to say that mindfulness teaches me relaxation, which then gives me the ability to be calmer within myself?

Janet McCutchen:  Well, relaxation may be a byproduct or a result of mindfulness.  Again, it is not necessarily like the practice of yoga or a specific practice, but rather something very simple that brings you into the moment, and breathing deeply is a part of that, when we are tuned into our bodies and what our bodies are doing.  That is a mindfulness moment.  It is kind of hard to worry or be angry when you are focused on taking deep breaths.  It is sort of like it is counter to one another.

Rosemary Cope:  So, really, I can practice this through the next few weeks as we go through the holidays, but what if I am a nurse on the floor?  I can practice this in between difficult patients that I might have to deal with, or difficult situations, or hard interactions with co-workers, or any of those types.  I can practice this to make me better able to deal with everyday life?

Janet McCutchen:  You absolutely can.  If you are in the break room, if you are in the hallway, elevator, wherever you may be, going into a patient's room, you can take a few moments.  We are not talking about blocking out time.  So, if you engage in some of what I just suggested, very simple kinds of practices like those, you can begin to build those into your day, because that is often what people say, is, well, I am on the floor, for example, or I am running from one place to the other - I don't have time to just stop for a half an hour.  You're right - you don't.  But mindfulness practices like these, that you weave into your day, can be very helpful.

Rosemary Cope:  Janet, thank you.  That's so helpful, because like you said, we think that we don't have time to do these sorts of things when we all have time to breathe every day.  So, it is just paying attention to how we do that.  And are there any online resources or apps that might encourage us to be more mindful in the days ahead?

Janet McCutchen:  There are some really good ones out there.  Several of them that I like are apps, are Headspace.  There is one called "iMindfulness" and then one called "The Mindfulness App," and all of these you can find on the app store.  Also, just to get people started if they had an interest in a website, UCLA actually has a mindfulness center.  So, if you want to log on to their site, it is "marc.ucla.edu," and they have all kinds of information on their site, and as you know, once you get on there, one link leads to the other, and so that can really get people going.  But those are the three apps that you can actually download that are really, really good.

Rosemary Cope:  Well, thank you, Janet.

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