Alice has been taking a mindfulness class for several weeks. At dinner with her friends, one of them asks, “So, what is mindfulness, really?” Alice explains that mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment. “Like right now,” she says, “noticing with full awareness that we are sitting at a table and talking to each other.
“Of course, on some level we know that we’re sitting and talking,” Alice continues, “but often we are acting on automatic pilot, distracted or thinking about something else. Typically, we aren’t fully present, fully noticing what it’s like to be here together right now. Most of the time we don’t have that kind of awareness, unless we actively bring our attention to it.”
So as Alice points out, the essence of mindfulness practice is intentionally bringing attention to the aspects of the present moment. It is also a practice of having an open and curious attitude, one that invites clear investigation of what is, without being colored by expectations, preconceived judgments or excessive reactivity.
Such practice can create new awareness and flexibility in thinking, and is well known to decrease stress and lead to enhanced psychological well-being. It can also help develop self-regulation skills, which makes it an important tool in ADHD, a disorder characterized by difficulties with self-regulation or self-control.
Here are two examples of key self-regulation skills:
- Attention Self-Regulation. Mindfulness practice requires paying attention to attention and directing it at will to the present moment. As such it can strengthen your ability to be aware of where your attention is. It allows you to notice when your attention is high jacked by a distraction or pulled by your busy mind. Such meta-awareness (or awareness of the contents of your mind) gives you an opportunity to bring the attention back to where you want it to be. Of course typically for those with ADHD (and in fact those without ADHD) this simple process is not an easy process. It is often a practice of repeatedly catching yourself being distracted and returning attention to the present moment. Such back and forth can be frustrating; however, if done with curiosity and acceptance, the repeated returning of attention can train your attention regulation skills. And you could say that like a muscle, with training, attention can get stronger.
- Emotion Self-Regulation. By bringing attention to the present moment, especially noting your body sensations as you are having an emotion, often helps you observe the emotional reaction from a new, witnessing perspective. This can help you discover new layers to what you are feeling. You also learn to step back and not be driven by the emotion and resist impulsive actions. You can have more choice in what you do and are not longer at mercy of biological wiring, old habits and knee-jerk reactions. With an open, non-judgmental attitude, can help you deal with difficult emotions in a compassionate and balanced way. This can help manage stress or conflict in an entirely new, thoughtful, and often transformative way.
With mindfulness we all can develop better attention and emotion regulation so our actions become more purposeful and thoughtful. And when we still fail, we can have more awareness and understanding, more self-compassion and more ability to continue trying.
Dr. Lidia Zylowka’s new book The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD: An 8-Step Program for Strengthening Attention, Managing Emotions, and Achieving Your Goals is now available!