Some days, it’s hard to get out of our heads and into our lives. We might be stuck on an emotion, mentally replaying an event that didn’t go as planned or worrying about a “What if” occurring in the future.
As a mental health counselor, I not only deal with my own questions and concerns about the “What ifs” in life, I try to help my clients manage their thoughts and emotions around the unknowns as well. I can’t always provide answers to the “What if” questions, but I do try to help my clients recognize what is in their control and what is not.
But what do we do with all of those worrisome thoughts and fears? Fretting about something doesn’t change an outcome, and holding onto stress and staying in a constant state of anxiety about what may or may not happen is not healthy. It’s bad for our overall health and is zero percent effective. So, how do we combat the “What ifs”?
Mindfulness is one way. When we are mindful of our present emotions, feelings, sensations and thoughts, we are not reliving the past or fearing what might happen in the future. We are living in the present moment.
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One of my favorite ways to practice mindfulness is through exercise, which allows me to get out of my head and into my body. Walks with my dog, Wrigley, are particularly instrumental in my mindfulness practice. He and I take a sensory walk every day.
It’s easy to do—let me walk you through the steps…
Start your walk with your dog by your side. Mindfully engage your senses, allow yourself to step away from your thoughts and into your surroundings. As you tap into each sense, dive into it as fully as your dog does with his nose. When Wrigley senses something on his walks, he investigates it with all of his attention. Channeling your inner puppy, start by noticing everything you smell.
Take a big, deep breath. What do you smell? Maybe you’re by the water and you smell a mix of ocean air, sunscreen and dough boys, or you’re walking past a recently mowed yard and you smell the freshness of the cut grass. Inhale all of the scents, one breath after another.
Look around and focus on what you see, not what you’re thinking. Home in on one thing at a time. Observe the colors, the patterns and the placement of things. Maybe you discover a house you’ve never noticed before, or that your neighbor’s hydrangeas are coming into view in periwinkle blues and lavender hues. Take mental pictures of what you see.
Pay attention to the various vibrations around you. Picture your dog’s ears perking up in response to different environmental sounds. Are they in the distance or nearby? Is it a single sound or a grouping of sounds—human voices, children’s laughter or the rustling of leaves on the trees? Pay attention to all of the ways the world is attempting to communicate with you.
What do you feel? Maybe it’s the warmth of the sun on your face, the pebbles under your feet or the silky blades of grass as you run your fingers through them. Take note of all of the things around you, and how they literally touch you.
Finally, what do you taste? You don’t necessarily have to put something in your mouth to taste it. If you’re walking along the coast, you may taste the salt air, or the humidity. Let the tastes linger.
After I purposefully engage all of my senses, I tend to feel so much more alive and invigorated because my senses are awake and taking in everything around me. This exercise never fails to get me out of my head, away from my anxious thinking, and into my body and my surroundings.
The sensory walk is a gentle reminder that the best way to deal with the unknown is to take time to care for ourselves. When we take good care of ourselves and choose to be present, we’re able to greet the future and all of its unknowns with the most balanced and centered version of ourselves, walking peacefully beside our loving, furry friends. And that is completely within our control.