Mindfulness and the Holidays

Tuesday, December 10, 2019 - 10:00am

The holiday season is upon us!  During this time of year the joy, magic, and meaning of the season can also include stress and other feelings including sadness and anxiety. Dr. Mirsky, Mindfulness Clinic Director, at Banner-UMC Adult Psychiatry Clinic, shares with us how we can use mindfulness to turn towards these difficult emotions, understand they are ok and allow ourselves to feel what we are feeling.

1. How does mindfulness work?

Mindfulness has been defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to things as they are.” As we practice this repeatedly, we become better able to face the challenges of our daily lives and to be with things as they are. We come to better understand the nature of our minds, hearts, and bodies. Mindfulness practice can be both formal and informal. Formal practices include sitting meditation, body scan, and mindful movement. All of these practices involve repeatedly bringing your attention to a single focus and gently redirecting the mind back to this focus when it wanders. Informal practice involves introducing a mindful attitude into daily activities, such as eating, brushing your teeth, interacting with others, etc.

2. Why did you study and specialize in mindfulness?

I first practiced mindfulness as a second year resident in 2008. It seemed like such a radical idea to just be with the difficulties that are arising, like mental or physical pain. It’s the simplest idea but it seems totally counterintuitive because we really, really want to push away or avoid the things we don’t like. But it works! I found this to be a life-changing practice for myself and wanted to share it with others. And many other people feel the same; the amount of research into mindfulness has skyrocketed in recent years. As evidence accumulates for the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions, some countries have included these interventions in their clinical guidelines. For example, within the National Health Service in the UK, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has been recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence as a treatment of choice for people with relapsing depression.

3. How do you practice mindfulness in your day to day life?

My daily formal practice includes a sitting meditation practice of 20-45 minutes and mindful stretching/movement that is a combination of yoga and Qi Gong. I have also been doing a 10-day silent insight meditation retreat yearly for the past 6 years, which really helps to deepen the practice. My informal daily practice involves making a concerted effort to be more present for moments of my life. This often involves putting down my cell phone or closing my computer so that I am only doing one thing at a time, like when watching a show or talking with my husband. And this makes these experiences richer and more enjoyable. It also involves taking space throughout the day to check in with my breath, body, and mind. Am I inhaling deeply? Can I relax my neck and shoulders? Am I ruminating about something instead of focusing on what is in front of me? Always remember that everyone is a work in progress and that change is always possible in these very small ways.

4. How do we slow down? How do we show up in a deeper, more meaningful way to this time of year that, at its heart, is meant to be deep and meaningful?

This is such a wonderful question, because this is really what mindfulness is all about. How can we remember what we value in our lives, and how can we stay present in a compassionate, equanimous way? I think it really starts with just being with what is in front of you. For instance, I recently heard someone discuss how excited they were to have their family visit for the holidays, only to be preoccupied with all that they had to do once their family arrived, and therefore being unable to enjoy their family’s company. So, I think the most important thing to do if you want to slow down is really setting this as an intention. And then checking in with yourself throughout the day to take some deep breaths and see where you are in your mind, body, and heart. Mindfulness is all about the repeated action of coming into the present, and it takes effort. We are so used to doing a million things at once and having our minds be all over the place. It takes time and practice to rewire our brains!

5. For some the holiday season may be the first time without a loved one, can mindfulness help with depression? Or grieving?

I relate to this very much right now because I recently lost my beloved dog, and it has been extremely difficult. Mindfulness helps me be with the grief and sadness; these experiences are part of life and there is no use pushing them away. Mindfulness helps us turn towards these difficult experiences and allow ourselves to just feel what we are feeling. In terms of depression, mindfulness has been studied extensively. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is one of the most widely used and researched mindfulness-based approaches. It is an eight-week program that meets for two hours a week, with about one hour of home practice daily. It combines the concepts of cognitive-behavioral therapy with the principles of mindfulness to help prevent relapse from recurrent episodes of depression. Clinical research has demonstrated MBCT to be as effective as antidepressants in reducing relapse of depression.

6. What resources do you encourage others to use when they need a break from all that is going on?

Anything that can bring you into the present moment is helpful. This can include ways of bringing attention to the breath, such as diaphragmatic breathing or the 4-7-8 Breath. Another way is to do some gentle stretching or movement, being sure to focus on the feeling of the movement in the body. It’s amazing the effects that can result from giving the body and mind just a little bit a little space!

Dr. Mirsky offers individual appointments using mindfulness-based psychotherapy and teaches the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for depression group. Dr. Mirsky is currently completing the Certificate Program through the Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy and is enrolled in the UCSD Mindfulness-Based Professional Training Institute. She is board-certified in Psychiatry, Integrative Medicine and Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry/Psychosomatic Medicine. If you would like to learn more about the Mindfulness Clinic or want to schedule an appointment, please visit the Clinic website at https://psychiatry.arizona.edu/patient-care/mindfulness-clinic or call 520-874-7520.