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The 3 Top Things We Can Do For Our Mental Health (Part 3 of 4)

Part 3 of this blog series on mental health starts with a personal short story going back to July 26, 2005… 

I was just 20 years old headed into my senior year of college. On that summer day, the most devastating and shocking news I could have heard came through a timid phone call. My mother was going to die that night. She was struggling for years but the seriousness of the situation had not sunk in. I also thought that I had years before those words would become a reality. This news came just 3 years after my stepfather passed away from similar health complications.  I was alone. 

The funeral and any social interactions were difficult for months after. I was lucky to have lots of friends, teammates, coaches, and an aunt and uncle who cared and supported me; but it was never enough to help the underlying feeling of sadness and a sudden lack of meaning in life. The next few years were also a struggle. 

I was an anxious kid at that time without a lot of confidence. I feared I wouldn’t be successful enough to make it on my own without the daily support of my family. I had a bout with depression that no one knew about. I was overspending on material items, and didn’t make nearly enough money to support my habits. I was truly in survival mode, walking a destructive path.


And then, in one instance, my whole life changed for the better. 


I was 23, walking around downtown Baltimore, planning to meet some friends that night. I happened to walk past a building that had a sign out front. The sign said, “Free Meditation Class at 7pm.” Lucky me, the class started in 15 minutes. I’m not sure what my fascination was with the concept of meditation at the time. I certainly had never been exposed to it before nor had I ever seen anyone else doing it, outside of the movies that made fun of it. But there I was, in a room with 10 other people listening to a monk give the directions, “Sit up, back straight, close your eyes if you feel comfortable...” 

She asked us to pay attention to the breath and then the body-  first the top of our head, eyes, jaw, mouth, shoulders, going down the body, part by part. It didn’t take long for my mind to wander off, but I understood the assignment. If the mind wanders, bring it back to the sensations in the body. Apparently by doing this over and over, one can achieve insight into ourselves and the nature of reality. Well, for me, it didn’t take long to have a major insight. 

At some point in the meditation, my mind wandered to memories of my mother. These memories played in my mind all of the time but now they were up front and center. I started to negatively spiral on these thoughts. My heart started to race and my body became tight. I felt unsettled and sad. I was no longer in the room meditating; I was completely in my head, reliving the darker side of my past. 

BUT THEN, it happened. I snapped back to awareness, remembering what I was supposed to do. “Oh right, the breath, drop my shoulders.” In an instant, the 3 year grief I felt vanished for that moment. My body relaxed. I felt at peace. I smiled wide and opened my eyes, trying not to laugh at loud. It was the first time in my life where I felt in control of my inner world. I didn't have to spiral or focus on the negativity that swarmed my mind from day to day. I could choose to step back and be grounded whenever I wanted. I felt confident.  What a gift that I discovered. My life changed from that moment on. I had an inspiring thought as I walked out of the class that day -  “I need to teach this to as many people as I can.” 


This brings us to the second top thing we can do for our mental and emotional health: 

To be mindful, or to practice mindfulness. 


In a world where our attention and emotional state is constantly stimulated and manipulated by phones, television, news, relationships, responsibilities, temptations, and pressures, it has become very hard to be aware of and control where we place our attention. The recommendation for screen time is 2 hours a day. Teenagers and young adults are averaging at least 6, and this is outside of the recent zoom classes where they spend an extra 5-7 hours staring at a screen. This constant stimulation (among other things) makes it very hard for the mind to be at ease, increasing stress, anxiety, sadness, and unpleasant mood.

Our mental health depends on our ability to manage our inner world of thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness is both the training and practice that gives us the ability to better do this. The present moment is always there, it can be accessed at any time. Doing so allows us to step back and see the true nature of the experiences in our lives, without the predetermined bias, judgment, and fears we apply to those situations. It allows us to make choices that are best for us rather than running on the automatic pilot of thoughts and behaviors that do not always serve us well.  


So How Do We Practice…

There are many many ways to practice mindfulness. There are formal ways to practice like through meditation for example, but there are countless informal ways in which we can be mindful. In fact there are an infinite amount of ways to practice. Any time you direct your full attention to a task, no matter what it is, with the awareness to redirect it back when you wander away, you are practicing mindfulness. We can do that at any point.  


Mindful Breathing

This is foundation for mindfulness! Spend 5 minutes (or just one solid breath) paying attention to the flow of air as it comes in and out of your nose. Just feel the sensation of the breath. Cool air in, warm air out. No need to control the rhythm, depth, or pace of the breath. Just watch the breath as it goes in and out, like a witness to it. When your attention wanders away (AND IT WILL!), catch it, and gently return your attention back to the feeling of the breath. We are not trying to keep our thoughts away, we just want to become aware when we get distracted by them and guide ourselves back.

I have attached two different audios below. The top is great. The bottom one is an audio that I made




Observing Thoughts Meditation

This meditation is by far one of my favorites. It requires us to turn our attention inward to the coming and going of thoughts, to better become familiar with them as they pass. 



Mindful Listening

Listen to a full song without interruption or judgment. See if you can fully immerse yourself into the music. Can you notice all of the instruments? Can you single one out? Or listen to every word being sung? Be with the song in all of its entirety. 


Hourglass Meditation

A quick meditation to practice becoming aware of the world around you. This link will take you right to an audio to try.



Body Scans

Body scans tend to be a favorite of anyone I teach mindfulness to. It was also the very first one I did (mentioned above), which had such a profound impact on me. It requires us to pay attention to different body parts from head to toe while noticing any sensations that pop up as we transition between parts.  

Here is a short body scan I found on youtube:



Mindfulness of Daily Tasks- 


1- Washing your hands-  feel the temperature of the water, feel the sensation of the soap, see the bubbles, notice the smell. 

2- Walking in to work or class- notice the temperature of the air, feel the breeze on your skin, notice any smells around, the big and small sounds around you, the sensations in your feet, legs and arms as your body moves through space. 

3- Eating a meal or snack- look at the fine details of the food, the texture of it, the smell of it. As you take your bite, notice the taste as it first enters your mouth to the after-taste once you swallow. 

4- Washing the dishes- Here is a daily task we have to do, usually while completely in our heads. Here is a good audio on how to do this task mindfully.  https://www.sharonsalzberg.com/topic/day-14-washing-dishes-meditation/

4- Any daily task can be done mindfully- what do you see, smell, hear, taste, feel ? If your attention wanders away, just refocus your attention back. Simple directions, difficult to do. Worth the practice.


Use The STOP Method

The STOP method is the perfect process for managing difficult situations: 

S- step back from what you are doing 

T- take a breath

O- observe your thoughts, emotions, physical sensations

P- proceed with what will support you in the moment


Download a meditation app for support

Headspace and Calm are two fantastic apps.


We can see that our thoughts and attention are incredibly important to the way we experience the world. We would be doing our mental health a great favor to manage those thoughts wisely. The training tool for this is mindulness : ) 

Hope you found value from this 3rd blog in the 4 part series on the Top 3 Things We Can Do For Our Mental Health.  Check back next week for the final blog in this series. 

Powell Cucchiella, LMHC

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