Seems like the term “mindfulness” is all over social media and health posts these days. Schools are teaching it and therapists love it - so what’s all the buzz about? Is this really something that teens can or should be doing to improve their mental health?
In this article we’ll unpack what mindfulness is (and what is isn’t). We’ll learn a little about some of the proven benefits of mindfulness based on scientific research. And we’ll learn how to become more mindful with simple activities you can practice easily every day.
At heart, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It is the ability to simply be, right now - not lost in ruminations about the past, not worrying or stressing about the future. And while that sounds straightforward, it is also harder than it seems. To be present fully, right now, means we also can’t be zoning off or mindlessly scrolling social media or watching a show. Mindfulness is not simply the absence of thinking about the past or the future, it is also the presence of being fully in the right now.
Paying attention to the present moment is the first part of mindfulness.
The second part of mindfulness is to do that without judgment. What does that mean? It means that one of the reasons it can be hard for us to just focus on the right now is that when we do so, we find that our mind starts spamming us with all sorts of critical, wandering, or otherwise unhelpful thoughts. Common judgmental thoughts we have are:
So while it sounds really simple - mindfulness is the practice of simply being in the present moment, with full attention to what you’re doing right now, without judgment - it can actually be very hard for most of us to do, especially busy teenagers.
But there are very good reasons to start practicing mindfulness!
Sometimes the mental health trends are just that - trends with no actual data or science to back them up. But mindfulness is the real deal. There have now been hundreds of studies showing that mindfulness has positive mental health effects. Mindfulness can help you:
Not bad, right? Mindfulness can not only improve your mood - make you feel less stressed, anxious, or depressed - but it can also improve your ability to function in your day-to-day life. Mindfulness can improve focus, attention, and self-regulation, which can have positive impacts for teens on homework completion, grades, and performance in areas such as sports, music, or other extracurriculars.
At the end of the day, our brain has to work within what is called our “cognitive capacity.” Our cognitive capacity is the overall amount of information and processing that our brain can handle at any given time. Our cognitive capacity is limited, meaning we cannot simultaneously pay attention to every single thing. When our attention is on one thing (like social media on our phone) it reduces our ability to attend to another thing (like homework).
The human brain is pretty good at multi-tasking, and we can attend to multiple things at once to some extent. But we’ll always perform best when we can direct all our attention to the immediate task at hand - whether that task is schoolwork, the game we’re playing, or even relaxing.
Mindfulness helps our brains learn to focus attention at what we choose to focus on. We learn to be less distracted by information that isn’t relevant to right now, especially our internal information - such as our thoughts. When our brain is ruminating over the past or worrying about the future, it has less cognitive capacity to focus on right now. Mindfulness helps us let go of those other thoughts and direct our attention to what is happening right in front of us.
Mindfulness, like any skill, can be learned through regular practice. This practice can be self-guided. Mindfulness is also a component of many evidence-based therapies and it can even be learned through virtual therapy over video. Below are some tips for how to get started learning mindfulness.
The great thing about mindfulness is that it is really simple at heart - it is simply learning to pay attention to the here and now. It doesn’t take much time or special materials. Some easy self-guided mindfulness activities are:
Take a walk around your neighborhood. Use your senses to notice what is going on around you, even saying them to yourself quietly or in your head. For example, you might walk and say: “I notice the big tree to my left. I notice the wind blowing on my face. I notice the red car driving by.”
Practicing deep breathing is a great way to focus on one thing - your breath. Find a quiet place to sit or lay down. Breathe in for a count of 5, hold for a count of 5, exhale for a count of 5, and hold the exhale for a count of 5. Do this 10 times.
Use your senses to stay grounded in the present moment. Try identifying:
Get a piece of candy or chocolate (Jolly Ranchers or Hershey’s kisses work well here). Very slowly unwrap it. Smell it. Turn it around in your fingers. Then put it on your tongue and let it melt slowly. Notice how it tastes and feels in your mouth. Make it last as long as possible!
Any focused art or reflection activity works well for developing mindfulness. Consider a coloring book, journal, knitting, or anything creative that focuses your attention on that task.
Mindfulness is also a component of many evidence-based therapies, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). All of these are therapies commonly used with teens to treat stress, anxiety, depression, and academic motivation or performance.
Your therapist may encourage you to learn and practice mindfulness as part of your therapy. In addition to the mindfulness activities listed above, therapists might guide you in activities such as body scanning, progressive muscle relaxation, guided visualization, or paced breathing - all activities that help you learn mindfulness. Try a few of these guided meditation practices.
Looking to start therapy? Online therapy can be an easy way to get started.
You’re probably not doing anything wrong! Mindfulness is a skill that takes time to develop and get good at. Most people find that when they start trying to be “mindful” they find their mind wandering to all the things that aren’t the mindful activity! Then their brains start to doubt the whole thing.
At first, your brain will likely wander often. You can redirect it by noticing the intrusive thought but trying not to dwell on it, by saying things to yourself like “I notice my mind wandering but I’m going to focus on my breath.” When you start practicing mindfulness you probably have to redirect your attention A LOT! That’s OK. Just keep at it and it does get easier.
The other way to improve your ability to be mindful is to start small and build up, just like you would train for anything. If you have never run more than a few laps, you couldn’t run a marathon tomorrow - you’d slowly build up, running just a few laps at first, then maybe a mile, then maybe a few miles. It would likely take you months to get to 26 miles!!! Mindfulness is just the same. Start small - maybe only 2-3 minutes. Move up to 5 minutes. Then 10 minutes.
Set aside a few minutes once a day at first. Often the best times are first thing in the morning or just before bed - but you should pick a time that works for you to find 5 quiet minutes to focus. Set a reminder on your phone, and have a place and activity picked out. If we say “I’m going to start mindfulness this week” - that’s not a very specific plan. But if we say “Every night before I go to bed I’m going to do 3 minutes of deep breathing” - that’s a pretty specific plan that makes it easier to stick to.
In the case of mindfulness, all the hype is real! Mindfulness really can help improve your mental health and performance. And it is really easy to learn. Good luck getting started on your mindfulness practice!