Mindfulness for anxiety - the difference between state and trait
Mindfulness is a skill that allows a person to peacefully be in the present moment, without dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
Mindfulness practices and interventions have been getting a lot of press in the past few years. Mainly because of studies reporting their effectiveness in helping people with emotional difficulties like anxiety and depression. People who suffer from different types of anxiety symptoms and disorders such as Social Anxiety, Panic Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder have been able to quell their anxiety symptoms, improve their sleep, decrease rumination and increase their general well-being using mindfulness interventions.
State and trait mindfulness, what’s the difference?
Although the benefits of mindfulness are well known, many people may not know the difference between state mindfulness and trait mindfulness.
It is actually very simple to understand. Mindfulness can be differentiated between a person's “state” of mind at any given time, and as a general “trait” that is a part of their personality. For example, if a person were engaging in some form of mindful practice or exercise, their "state" mindfulness would be pretty high. However, when they are going about their daily routine, they may not be very mindful at all. If that is the case, it would be said that they have low “trait” mindfulness.
States of mind, such as excitement, fear, and joy are temporary. They are simply states that we may be in at any given time. Personality traits are more long-lasting and habitual. Mindfulness is the same way. It is both a state of mind we may experience at any given time (and, of course, it is a beneficial state of mind) and a personality trait that we may have to one degree or another.
Which is more important?
I believe that both the temporary state of mindfulness and the general habitual trait of mindfulness are both beneficial and important. However, one of the main goals of mindfulness practice is to cultivate more trait mindfulness, allowing us to be more mindful in our daily lives when we aren’t intentionally practicing.
Studies have shown that people who naturally have greater trait mindfulness tend to sleep better, have greater emotional stability, have greater self-control, and are much less prone to anxiety. Furthermore, the higher a person's trait of mindfulness, the quicker and better they seem to respond to psychotherapy.
Clearly, this is a desirable trait to have.
It may seem somewhat discouraging that it is referred to as a personality trait. For many this makes it sound like something you either have or you don’t. And not as something that can be developed. Is this the case? On the contrary! Trait mindfulness is changeable.
I simply see it as a habit. Either you are in the habit of being mindful throughout the day, or you aren’t. And habits can be built.
How to develop trait mindfulness
Mindful practices such as meditation and interventions such as Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction have been shown to be effective in increasing trait mindfulness over time. However, if you are like me and had very little to begin with, you might benefit by working on developing this disposition more directly.
Mindfulness is a skill, and to develop that skill we need some form of regular formal practice. I would like to expand on the options here in future articles for those who don’t like to meditate. 10-30 per day practice sessions, once or twice a day, are very effective in increasing our ability to put ourselves in a mindful state at will. This is where we develop the skill. Next, we want to focus on developing the habit of being more mindful during the day.
There are several ways to go about this, but I will share one way that has proven to be the most effective for me personally.
On top of your (preferably daily) formal practice sessions, you are going to want to focus on being mindful in different areas and at different times during the day. One thing that has worked well for me is to set a timer to go off once every hour during the day. I use a free app on my phone that I can set to chime at certain intervals throughout the day. When the bell goes off, I hear it and it is a reminder to me to put myself into a mindful state. No matter what I am doing, I take the effort to be particularly mindful of it and of myself. It is best not to overwhelm yourself with too much, so I suggest simply trying to be mindful for about 1 minute whenever your alarm goes off. With time you can extend that a little bit if you would like, or like me, you can set your alarm to go off even more often. I try to remind myself to be mindful once every 15 minutes. Eventually, it becomes habitual and it isn’t difficult. You will eventually find yourself being more mindful during the day without even consciously trying.
Another thing that is helpful is to make certain routine tasks practice opportunities. For example, when you are washing the dishes, be mindful of the process. Instead of daydreaming, try being in the moment as much as you can until you are finished. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back. Or when you are walking, try to sometimes notice the feeling of the soles of your feet touching the ground. The more situations in which you practice, the better.
In my opinion, mindfulness practice is best in short bursts, instead of in day or week-long retreats. Don’t be too perfectionist or strict with yourself in the process of developing trait mindfulness. With each time you practice, even for a minute, you are racking up small wins and rewiring your brain in a healthier way.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2022 Jackie Jones