One of the most commonly stated facts about mental health in the United States is that rates of anxiety and depression have been rising for years.

The National Health Interview Survey, an organization that has monitored the health of citizens for over 60 years, reported that 15% of Americans experienced anxiety symptoms and 18.5% experienced depressive symptoms in 2019. It seems that each year these percentages creep higher and higher, and the rates are often highest among our youth and young adults.

A common thing I hear from people who experience anxiety or depression is the why question: “Why do I feel this way? Was it something that happened in my childhood that I can’t remember?”

While it can be important to look for patterns of behavior or incidents that might have triggered symptoms, ultimately the why question is an exercise in futility. There rarely is a solid answer for why, and even if there is, it doesn’t take away the symptoms. When clients begin trying to delve into the depths of “why,” I try to gently bring them back to the present to see that more important than “why” is “what do I do about it?”

We know that anxiety and depression can often be managed through a mix of medication, counseling and healthy lifestyle habits. Normally, in my experience, we try to “fix” our anxiety or depression on our own before reaching out to others for help. So, this article is going to look at one of the most widely acknowledged ways to manage anxiety and depression: mindfulness.

If you’re not someone who regularly practices mindfulness, there’s a decent chance you’ve either never heard of it or only heard about it in passing. Mindfulness, at its core, is simply the practice of noting your thoughts and practicing bringing your attention to the present. It’s commonly associated with Eastern religions, such as Buddhism because Buddhist monks were some of the first to practice mindfulness, but the practice itself isn’t associated with a particular religion.

How do you practice mindfulness? Well, the easiest way is through a guided meditation where you focus on paying attention to your breathing. The goal of mindfulness is to work on bringing our attention to our thoughts and becoming more aware of how our minds wander. As you practice, you begin to see how often your mind jumps around from thought to thought and you begin to learn how to bring your mind back to the present.

You might be thinking, “Why is this worth my time?”

Mindfulness, after all, sounds like some hippy pseudoscience to many. Well, recent studies have shown the benefits of mindfulness. People who practice mindfulness report feeling less anxious and more able to handle their anger and other difficult emotions. Mindfulness practice also seems to help our hearts by lowering blood pressure and improving our brain health. One study done by neuroscientists found that people in their 50s who were regular meditators had brains more similar to those in their 20s.

While the health benefits sound great, perhaps the best benefit to mindfulness is the ability to learn how to pull ourselves out of living in the past or the future and back into the present moment. Consider the things you think about. How often are we thinking about things that we did or said in the past or things that we need to do in the future? How often do we miss out on the present moment by being caught up in our thoughts?

Mindfulness is a great way to practice learning how to bring your mind back to the present moment, the only moment we can live in. Try it out! You can find guided mindfulness meditations on YouTube or use an app on your phone such as Calm or Headspace.

• Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to mmccray@wpcgreenwood.org.

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