As your physical self moves throughout your day, does your emotional self keep up?
Do your thoughts accompany you from task to task, or does your mind drift and wander, making it challenging to pay attention to conversations or recall what you were just doing?
Your body can physically inhabit a space when your mind is elsewhere. This tuning out might happen more often when you feel bored, stressed, or otherwise preoccupied.
Being present (or living mindfully, whatever you want to call it) simply means you’re focused and engaged in the here and now, not distracted or mentally absent.
Is the whole idea of being present just the latest fad being embraced by wellness enthusiasts? After all, who really pays attention to every little thing?
Luckily, being present appears to live up to all the hype. Here’s why.
It can make it easier to manage stress
Many people respond to emotional distress and uncertainty by disengaging from the source. It can certainly seem counterintuitive to stay present when you feel anxious or nervous. Distracting yourself from unwanted or unpleasant thoughts can bring short-term relief.
But you can’t permanently hide from reality. Acknowledging fears and stress triggers, and working to mindfully accept them, can have more benefit in the long run.
A 2016 study of 143 adults found evidence to suggest cultivating present-moment awareness could make it easier to cope not only with a single stressful event, but also later stress on the same day as well as stressful events in the future.
It may help relieve mental health symptoms
When you focus on the present moment, you’re paying attention to the things currently happening. These events might range from joyous to downright heartbreaking (or anywhere in between).
If you’re going through a tough time, you might understandably wonder how increasing your awareness of these experiences can benefit you.
Mindfulness helps you recognize anxious or depressed thoughts as just that: thoughts. Eventually, you can learn to recognize these thoughts as you notice them and interrupt their patterns before they trap you in a spiral of distress.
It can strengthen your relationships
Ever spent time with a friend or partner who kept looking at their phone or saying, “Sorry, what?” Maybe you’ve been the one to lose the train of a conversation when you had something else on your mind.
Everyone gets distracted from time to time, but when this happens often, it can negatively affect relationships.
No one wants to feel ignored. If you constantly seem distracted or disinterested in what your loved ones have to say, they may start to think you don’t really care.
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Instead of letting your mind wander to your partner’s quirks or mistakes, or things you wish they would do, try focusing on the moment-to-moment experience of your relationship. This can make it easier to both enjoy the many things you appreciate about your partner and address problems or concerns as they happen.
Committing to being present can feel particularly challenging in turbulent times, especially if you tend toward avoidance as a coping strategy.
Try thinking of the whole thing like a pair of new shoes: At first, it might seem uncomfortable and not quite right. But over time, you may begin to realize you’re living your days more mindfully without even thinking about it — just like those new shoes eventually start to feel as comfortable as your beloved, worn-out kicks.
Here are a few exercises to help you get the ball rolling.
Use your 5 senses for observation
Most people pay some level of attention to what they see and hear. Ask yourself whether you use your other senses with the same regularity.
Being more present is often as simple as:
- savoring the taste and fragrance of your morning tea or coffee
- relishing the softness of your favorite sweater
- noting distant sounds, like music, your neighbors’ voices, birdsong, and so on
- enjoying the warmth of the water on your skin as you shower or wash your hands
That old saying “Stop and smell the roses” isn’t bad advice. If you have the ability to use all five senses, practice observing what you feel, smell, or taste.
Focus on your breath
Deep breathing and other breathing exercises help you remember to take a moment and mindfully connect with your surroundings.
You might find these particularly helpful while driving in traffic or during other times of stress. Breathing exercises can help you ground yourself and help you avoid distracting yourself further by ruminating on worries or picking up your phone.
Breathe in slowly, focusing on the sensation of your lungs expanding and filling with air. Hold the breath for a count of three, then release it slowly.
It’s a concept that gets thrown around a lot, but practicing gratitude can make a big difference in your ability to remain present. By taking time to embrace and reflect on your appreciation for aspects of your life, you’re also paying more attention to them.
We often feel grateful for something until we’re in danger of losing it. Maybe your present situation isn’t ideal. You might feel as if you don’t have much to be grateful for.
But try to recognize small positives, like:
- your loved ones
- working internet
- a roof over your head
Stick with it
As with all new habits, it can take some time before mindfulness becomes a regular part of your daily life. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t notice changes overnight.
It can also take some time to build these techniques into your daily life, but don’t let that deter you.
If you notice your thoughts wandering, gently bring yourself back to the present — without judgment or negative self-talk. Mindfulness will come more easily with time and practice.
Staying present is key when it comes to managing work-related stress and being productive.
Your job may not always interest or challenge you, but remaining present can help you stay productive, even when you feel bored.
Use your break time mindfully
What’s the first thing you do when you start your break? There’s nothing wrong with checking your phone or grabbing a snack, but give yourself a few minutes for mindfulness first.
Closing your eyes and doing a quick body scan can help you note areas of stress or tension. Sometimes, just acknowledging these feelings can help relieve them.
Take a few deep breaths, imagining stress and tension leaving your body with each exhale.
Also consider changing up your break by taking a walk. A few minutes outside, feeling fresh air, can help you feel more present and connected.
Move mindfully between activities
Once you finish a task, take a minute or two to rest instead of rushing immediately to the next item on your list.
- praising yourself for doing your best
- appreciating co-workers who helped you out
Don’t think about what comes next. Just take a minibreak to simply exist.
Feel stuck? Check in with yourself
When you feel stalled on something you don’t particularly want to do, you might sit there, willing your work to make sense even as your thoughts wander to other things.
This often disrupts productivity and workflow.
Instead of forcing yourself to keep going, consider what’s confusing you and how you might handle the problem.
- Ask a co-worker?
- Try a different approach?
- Save it for tomorrow, when you might feel more refreshed?
Even if you can’t find a specific solution, just sitting with the problem for a moment could help provide some insight on next steps.
The time you spend with your loved ones matters. Bringing mindfulness into the equation can help you deepen your bond.
Think about how you spend your time together
When you see friends or family, or spend time at home with your partner, how do you pass that time? Scrolling through your phones together may not be the best way to connect (though there’s nothing wrong with occasionally doing this).
Try to change up your usual routines by:
- playing a board game
- planting a garden
- preparing a meal together
- creating a partner workout
You can also enjoy time together without doing anything in particular. Simply sharing a relaxing moment with a loved one can help strengthen your connection to the present and increase your sense of relaxation and calm.
Embrace your playful side
When you feel anxious and stressed, life can seem dismal. Taking time to joke and have fun with loved ones might be the last thing on your mind.
But laughter can help you release tension and improve your mood. Sure, a more lighthearted mindset won’t completely relieve the concerns you’re facing, but humor and joy can help you weather distress more easily.
So find (or create) moments that encourage smiles and laughter, like:
- playing a game you loved as a child, like tag or hide-and-seek
- writing and acting out a short skit
- attempting to draw portraits of each other
Practice active listening
One simple step to keep yourself more present in any relationship involves active or empathic listening.
Give conversations your full attention by:
- making eye contact
- asking questions
- validating the other person’s experience (e.g., “That must be so difficult” or “I’m sorry to hear that”)
This shows you care about what your loved one has to say and that you really are “there” for them.
Parenting is a challenging job. It’s tough to stay present all the time.
Ever given your kids permission to do something you didn’t really hear them ask to do? Only later, when your carpet is speckled with blue paint, do you realize you said they could paint in the house.
Kids notice when you only half listen or constantly seem distracted. In time, they might respond by sharing less with you.
To be more present, try these tips. You’ll also help your children become more mindful in the process.
Encourage family detachment from devices
Does your family rely on smartphones and computers to get through the day?
Yes, these devices are useful; they help us stay connected, get work done, and unwind. But it’s still helpful to take some time away from technology each day. This allows you to focus on interacting with each other and strengthening your bond as a family.
Set some no-tech times. Honor these limits yourself.
For example, you might avoid devices:
- at mealtimes (this promotes mindful eating)
- during family time (walks, game nights, or family movies)
- an hour before bedtime
Dedicate time for fun
No matter how busy or stressful life becomes, it’s important to create positive experiences with your family. The time you share can strengthen your bond and improve your outlook.
When you look back on difficult times, you might notice distressing memories have faded while the moments of happiness and joy you shared remain strong and clear.
Live in the moment by:
- dropping everything to have an impromptu game of hide-and-seek
- putting on a family play
- having family read-alouds
Teach gratitude and compassion
Showing appreciation, even for everyday things, is an important component of mindfulness.
Your kids will learn from your example (and the occasional gentle reminder), so encourage mindful appreciation and kindness by:
- sharing resources with others
- offering kind words and validation
- pointing out the bright side of seemingly unpleasant situations
- regularly voicing your love and appreciation for your children, partner, and other loved ones
Encourage them to appreciate each moment by doing so yourself. When taking a walk, you might point out sunlight playing through the trees, the warmth of the sun on your face, or the fragrance of different plants.
Each moment in your life has meaning, whether you notice that importance immediately or some time down the line.
Making the most of life as it happens, rather than wishing for the past or worrying about the future, can improve your quality of life and help you feel more optimistic and prepared to face any challenge.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.