Emotional & Mental Health for Widows

Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness

Tara Gidus Collingwood, MS, RDN, CSSD, ACSM-CPT

I’ve never been great at meditating. Shutting your brain off and trying to just “be” in the present moment doesn’t sound difficult, but if you’ve ever tried it you know how easy it is for the mind to wander. After years of practicing I’ve gotten better, but I’m no expert.

In the days and months following my husband Stephen’s death I found the need to be alone an absolute necessity. I had two small boys (3 and 5 at the time) and was working full time. Moments of peace were fleeting. I was blessed to have some family members and friends who would take the boys overnight, or for a weekend, so I could get some real rest and reflection time. However, those times were few and far between. I had to learn how to use small increments of time to quiet my mind and find peace on a regular basis.

When I first began meditating after losing Stephen I found myself in a pool of tears. The grief would overwhelm any other emotions. I still sometimes find myself overwhelmed with grief, even almost 10 years later, but I also have been able to find places of peace, gratitude, and even joy in my mindfulness practice.

I remember, when Stephen was fighting cancer, someone told him about visualization, a form of mindfulness training. He had Stage 4 stomach cancer that had spread to his pelvis and vertebrae. He would visualize taking every single bone out of his body and cleaning it one by one. The first cleaning solution didn’t work, he said, so he tried a second solution. That one worked (in his visualization). Once he was sure every bone was clean, he would visualize putting it back in its place. He did the same thing with his stomach, where the cancer originated. He was convinced that his visualization practice had a lot to do with the cancer receding for several months.

What Exactly is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a state of being. Mindfulness training uses meditation, but it can also be informal. Meditation is a practice, so don’t expect to do it perfectly! It is being purposeful about focusing on the present moment without judgment. It works by accepting emotions and experiences rather than avoiding them.

Mindfulness has been studied and found to have a multitude of benefits:

  • Physical Health: Helps reduce stress, blood pressure, chronic pain, and GI symptoms, and improves sleep
  • Mental Health: May help with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders
  • Overall well-being: Greater capacity for resilience, enjoy pleasures of life as they occur, less regret for the past, better self-esteem, deeper relationships/connection with others

How to Become More Mindful

Mindfulness training helps us to accept emotions, thoughts, feelings, and memories. For example, if you are in pain, telling yourself not to feel the pain brings more awareness to the pain and can potentially make it worse. Instead, we can feel how we are feeling, accept it, and then proceed.

There are many ways to practice being mindful. Remember that the goal is to be alert and focused while paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. You can even practice mindfulness while brushing your teeth, petting the dog, or washing dishes. Slow down in your everyday activities, focus on one thing at a time, and be fully present.

Here’s a basic mindfulness meditation: Sit quietly and focus on your natural breathing. You can silently repeat a mantra or a word. Allow thoughts to come and go and return to your focused breathing or mantra. Allow body sensations such as itching and tingling to pass. Notice any sights, sounds, smells, or tastes, and allow them to pass. Allow emotions to come in without judgment, name them, accept them, and allow them to pass. Notice any urges or cravings that come, and wish them to pass.

You may also want to try box breathing: Find a comfortable position in a chair or cross-legged on the floor, back straight, and close your eyes. Inhale slowly for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts, and hold for 4 counts. Repeat. Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensations of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling as you inhale and exhale. Begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, and your ideas. Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it as good or bad. If your mind begins to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again.

I personally like guided meditations. I use my Peloton app quite often for this, but there are a multitude of other apps that you can use. Try Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, or Buddhify, just to name a few. Most are free or very low cost. You can choose the length of time (5 minutes to 60+ minutes) and what you want to focus on (sleep, joy, gratitude, peace, calm, etc.). I also like to practice visualization. When I am nervous or anxious about something, I will visualize myself going through the motions, thoughts, feelings, conversations, and more of whatever it is that is making me anxious. I have found great benefit from this practice.

If you are new to mindfulness and meditation, start slowly. Begin with 2-5 minutes and work your way up to additional time. Try to find a specific time of the day that will work for you. Pick one day per week at first and then add more days until it becomes habit. Most importantly, find what works for you. It doesn’t need to be a certain way as long as you find benefit.

The more you do, the greater the effects you’ll experience from mindfulness practices. Invest in yourself. You deserve it. Namaste.

Tara Gidus Collingwood, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Personal Trainer, and fellow Wister. You can find her at dietdiva.net.

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Knowing there are women who have not only survived what I was going through, but were also thriving and moving forward in their lives.
— MSC Wister® (Widow + Sister)