Mindfulness ‘what’ skills teach us what to do to become more mindful. These skills will help you learn how to observe without judgement or attachment, describe your experience (both internal and external) just as it is, and fully participate in the present moment without hesitation.
There are three sets of ‘what’ skills:
1. Notice what is present
Look at the following picture and notice your reaction to it:
What did you notice? Did it make you think or feel a certain way? Perhaps you thought that the picture was ‘scary’ or ‘dark’ and felt uneasy about it. This activity shows us how quick the mind is to assess, judge and label things.
The first ‘what’ skill teaches us not to do this straight away. Instead we learn how to notice our experience in the present moment, without adding judgement, pushing away discomfort, or becoming attached to anything. In other words, we let reality be just as it is, without trying to control it. The aim is simply for you to attend to and observe your surrounding environment, thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.
To do this, you’ll need to take a mental ‘step back’ from situations, be curious (rather than fearful) about your experience and avoid assigning labels. This can be called ‘wordless watching’. You can use your five senses to observe the moment (sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste).
Here are some examples of how you can ‘notice what is present’:
- Purposefully focus on and observe the present moment , without reacting to it. Start by focussing your attention on just one thing (e.g., an emotion, object, or sound), without judging it. Be curious and see what you can learn about this thing. It can be as simple as looking at the palm of your hand. Whenever your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the exercise.
- Choose an activity to do and mindfully observe your experience as you engage with it (e.g., go for a walk – pay attention to the movement of your legs, the ground beneath your feet, and the air on your skin). Start by focussing on one of the five senses, and slowly expand your attention to include the other senses
- Simply watch your thoughts for two minutes, without judgment, and write them down on a piece of paper. You don’t need to write the whole thought, just a word or two that summarises it. Try and see your thoughts coming and going, like clouds moving across the sky. Practice watching your thoughts come and go without trying to control them. Avoid reacting to anxious thoughts, simply notice “I’m having an anxious thought”
- Observe any emotions or feelings you are experiencing, including any areas of comfort, discomfort, tension, pain and so on. Notice where they are located and how they feel in your body. Notice if the physical sensation moves or changes. Try to give the sensation a size, shape, colour, and texture in your mind.
- As you focus on how you feel emotionally, try to stay in the present moment, even when it’s uncomfortable. Notice the discomfort, sit with it, and don’t try to push it away or distract yourself from it. Simply acknowledge “I’m feeling anxious” or “I’m feeling embarrassed”. You can breathe in around the feeling to make space for it. If you have an urge to act, try to observe this too, without taking action. Be curious about your experience.
You might be wondering how the simple skill of noticing can help with your social anxiety. As you become more mindful of your experiences, thoughts, and emotions, you will gain important insight into the specific triggers and biases that keep your anxiety going. If you understand these things, you are in a better position to make changes that interrupt the model of social anxiety we learned about in Week 1. Let’s use Jerome’s experience as an example.
By mindfully observing, Jerome learns that he is prone to feeling anxious in crowds and when speaking in front of people. He also realises that he becomes more anxious when he is not prepared for or expecting these situations. Jerome identifies that his first signs of anxiety are sweaty palms and a racing heart. His thoughts go into overdrive and he starts to worry about what other people are thinking of him.
Jerome uses this information to his advantage by creating a plan for how he will respond when caught off guard. He now knows that he needs to implement anxiety management strategies whenever he notices his early warning signs. For example, when Jerome notices anxious thoughts, he is more able to let them come and go without getting attached to any. This helps Jerome prevent many panic attacks.
Simply observing has also allowed Jerome to learn that he can feel anxious and still function relatively well. By observing others in his environment, Jerome learns that most people are completely disinterested in him! This helps him challenge the belief that others are staring and helps him feel less self-conscious. As such, Jerome avoids situations less and feels more in control of his life.
2. Add words to your observations
Once you have observed something, you need to add words to it. The second ‘what’ skill teaches us how to do this through the act of describing. When describing your experience, it is important to select your words carefully. Descriptive words must be objective and non-judgemental (neutral) in nature. It is important to avoid labels and highly emotional language here.
For example, take the picture we saw above. When asked to describe this picture, many people say things like “the bear is evil” or “it’s about to attack”. However, these statements include the types of judgements we are trying to avoid. We don’t know for sure if the bear is evil or about to attack, these are just assumptions. Assumptions can often be followed by strong emotions.
Instead, we can assign neutral and objective descriptions like “the bear is pink”, “the bear has teeth” and “it has a red heart on its chest”. This allows us to separate from our mind’s assumptions, which are sometimes true, but are mostly biased. This skill requires us to avoid taking our thoughts and emotions as factual and exact reflections of reality.
As a general rule, if you can’t see, hear, touch, taste or smell something, you can’t describe it! As with the bear example, we can’t observe or describe the thoughts, feelings, or intentions of another person or the meaning of a situation.
Here’s some examples of how you can ‘add words to your observations’:
- Practice by describing objects in detail, using only factual language. Pick any object at home, work/school or outdoors (e.g., a leaf or a piece of fruit). For example, to describe an apple, you might use words like ‘green’, ‘shiny’, ‘symmetrical’, and so on. Steer clear of judgemental words, like ‘ugly’, ‘tasty’, or ‘boring’.
- Observe your internal experience (thoughts, emotions, sensations, and urges) and add words to what you notice. For example, “I notice an urge to do something else”, “I notice my chest is tight”, “I notice the feeling of anxiety”, “I notice I’m having an anxious thought”. Again, avoid judgements or assumptions, which usually involve words like “good/bad”, “right/wrong”, “should/shouldn’t” etc.
- Observe and describe the sounds around you. Describe their volume, pitch, depth, quality, and distance from you (e.g., a group of people talking might be described as loud, muffled, high pitch and nearby). Steer clear of assigning meaning or judgements (e.g., with the people talking example, avoid describing the sound as ‘argumentative’, ‘annoying’, ‘overwhelming’ etc.
- When thinking about a situation, sort out what is fact and remove your assumptions, interpretations, and opinions. To help you do this, write about the situation from the perspective of a video recorder. Describe only things that a video recorder can capture (e.g., the environment, actions, people present, words spoken). For example, my colleague approached me at work and asked a question, I did not verbally respond, the colleague said “I’ll come back” and rushed away to another part of the office. Notice how we avoided things like “I looked awkward”, “he thinks I’m weird”, “I’m incompetent”, “he’ll never ask me again” etc.
As we learned in Week 1, biased judgements, assumptions, and labels are a big part of what keeps social anxiety going. The skill of describing helps us to remove these things, as well as accurately determine what we’re feeling, communicate clearly to others, and challenge biases that keep social anxiety going. Let’s meet Jerome again.
Jerome begins to remove judgemental language and as he describes his internal and external experiences. For example, as Jerome was making a speech, he notices people laughing and starts feeling anxious. He describes his thoughts (e.g., “I’m noticing an anxious thought”) and physical sensations (e.g., “I can feel my heart rate going up”). He also describes the situation objectively (e.g., “I’m making a speech and there are two people laughing in the back row”), instead of making judgements (e.g., “I’m a terrible presenter”) or assumptions (e.g., “they’re laughing at me”).
As a result, Jerome’s anxiety did not reach extreme levels. He still felt nervous, but his anxiety remained manageable. Jerome was able to separate from his mind’s assumptions and finish the speech. Afterwards, Jerome commented to a colleague about how bad his speech was. Jerome was surprised when the colleague told him the speech was great and the entire team had found it interesting. It turns out the people in the back row were being rude and laughing about an unrelated joke.
3. Jump in and have a go
The final ‘what’ skill teaches us to jump into and participate fully in activities. This is important, as it allows us to be more effective and gain a greater sense of enjoyment in life. Social anxiety often gets in the way of having a go, as we become more focussed on how we appear to others than the activity itself. Instead, the key here is to immerse yourself, go with the flow, and engage completely in what you are doing.
For example, say you are going to a friend’s party. You know about the party months in advance and your anxiety builds as the date gets closer. You worry about what you’ll wear, who you’ll have to talk to, and all the ways you could possibly make a fool of yourself. When you’re at the party, all you can think about is what other people are thinking about you. You focus on avoiding anxiety provoking conversations as best you can. As a result, you feel on-edge, uncomfortable, and self-conscious. You’re not able to relax or enjoy the party.
In the above example, immersing yourself and participating in the moment would have been beneficial in many ways. It would have allowed you to jump out of your head and into the party with your friends. You would have been free to have more meaningful conversations with others, enjoy the music, loosen up and have fun. It is only when we are present in the moment that we can really appreciate all it has to offer.
Here are some examples of how you can practice ‘jumping in and having a go’:
- Take an activity you do regularly and use this to practice being fully present and engaged with the task. For example, you might use washing the dishes or having a shower as a way to jump in and mindfully participate
- Try a new activity and immerse yourself in the experience (e.g., learn a new skill, take a yoga class). Be aware of the experience, both internally and externally, and repeatedly bring your attention back to what you’re doing whenever your mind wanders
- Set aside time to throw yourself into an activity or hobby you enjoy (e.g., colouring in, watching television, playing an instrument or sport). Use this time to be fully engaged in what you’re doing and avoid multitasking. For example, if you are watching television, avoid eating, studying, or having a conversation at the same time
- Do something repeatedly and focus on ‘becoming one’ with the activity (e.g., breathing exercises, mindfully describing an object, a relaxation exercise or mindful movement like walking). Gently guide your focus back to the activity whenever you become distracted
- When you’re having a conversation, focus your attention fully on what the other person is saying and doing. Take note of what they’re telling you, their tone, body language, and posture. Throw yourself into the conversation and examine their reaction to your responses. Be curious.
Social anxiety can significantly reduce a person’s quality of life. As you’re probably aware, anxiety can be stubborn and all consuming. It can be hard to focus on other things, let alone perform well or gain enjoyment from them, when we are feeling worried or anxious. Learning to jump in and participate fully in activities can free us to enjoy the moment. Let’s meet Jerome one last time.
Jerome would often feel anxious for weeks or months before a social event. He would carry that anxiety everywhere with him, much like a ball and chain around his ankle. For example, Jerome hates crowds. He understandably felt anxious when his daughter asked him to watch her perform at a big concert. Even though the concert was two months away, Jerome was preoccupied with worries about how he would cope with the crowd. Jerome took this worry with him to work, to the gym, and to play time with his children. As a result, he wasn’t fully present.
Jerome struggled at first when he tried to participate more fully in his life. However, with practice, he found times where he was fully present, effective, and enjoying the moment free from his anxiety. Jerome was more productive at work, and he got more satisfaction from time with his family. Of course, Jerome still felt anxious. However, he learned how to put the anxiety aside at times so that he could freely participate in other aspects of life. In this way, Jerome achieved more balance, and his social anxiety stopped being a defining feature in his life.