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Learn & Practice

Well-Being Tip: Exploring Anchors

By The Healthy Minds Team

In this week’s Well-Being Tip, we explore what meditation anchors are and how they can bring you back from a wandering mind.

Photo by Keenan Beasley on Unsplash 

Learning how to “anchor” your practice is a key skill in the first steps of training your mind to be more present and focused (as found in the Awareness pillar of the Healthy Minds Framework for Well-Being). A meditation anchor can help bring you back from a wandering mind, securing your attention when you are inevitably distracted.

But more than a technique, a meditation anchor can become a home-base of sorts the more that you practice. It can be leveraged in times of emotional reactivity – almost like a security blanket. You can use almost anything as an anchor – you just need to spend some time exploring which is the right fit for you.

As our founder, Dr. Richard Davidson, explains in the Healthy Minds Program app: 

“What we’re finding is that these practices strengthen important connections in the brain. Oftentimes what’s going on is that the network linked to thoughts and judgments - what we call the ‘default mode network’ - starts firing with emotional centers of the brain like the amygdala. The brain can get stuck in a loop - our thoughts trigger emotions, emotions trigger more thoughts, and on and on…. Our research suggests that mindfulness changes this pattern. When the emotional centers of the brain light up, or the network associated with thoughts and judgments, we can bring online parts of the brain that help us to regulate our impulses and reactions. We’re just beginning to understand how this works.” 

Being able to tune in to your anchor in a moment of reactivity can be the difference between falling into a trap of overreaction and one of calm, thoughtful understanding. 

Here is a simple practice to test out different anchors:

  • Take a calm, relaxed position and begin to notice your state of mind. Are you focused, or is your mind scattered and restless? Do you feel wakeful and present or perhaps dull and sleepy? Just notice. It doesn’t matter what your state of mind is – just bring your attention to it.

  • Now we’ll begin the practice of “trying out” anchors. Bring your attention to something specific and rest your attention for some time. Notice, how easily you can focus and retain your attention on these anchors. 

  • Example anchor options:
    • The breath. The breath is probably the most common anchor. Focus on breathing in and then letting it out. You can even try counting the breath if that helps.
    • Sensations in the body. Bring your attention to the sensations in your hands. Are your hands tingling? Itching? What about your chest? Do you feel tightness?
    • Pressure – feel your hands holding something, or feel your feet on the ground.
    • Sight – can you focus on an object in your field of vision? Look at the colors, the texture, the shape.
    • Sound – tune in to the sounds around you. It’s easier to identify a sound that will be somewhat constant. This is an especially helpful anchor outdoors.
    • Feelings – The feel of the wind or the sun on your face.
    • Smells – The smells wafting around you.
    • Your emotions – You can even use your emotions themselves as an anchor. For example, if you start to feel anxiety rising, you can tune into the details of this feeling in your mind and body.

  • Once you’ve cycled with mindfulness through these various anchor options, you can end your practice and reflect which of the anchors felt the most comfortable for you. 

  • Over the next few weeks, continue to experiment with different anchors – both in and out of formal practice. For example, just before a meeting or a phone call – try out an anchor.

An anchor is a personal choice and what works at one time may not work in another situation – so taking the time to train your mind in potential anchors can be beneficial in the long run for moments of reactivity. It really doesn’t matter what you use as an anchor, you can use anything as an opportunity to practice this skill.

You can practice wherever you are, and no matter what you’re doing. All you have to do is know that you’re hearing, feeling, seeing, breathing. Be fully present with the experience.

Working through the Awareness pillar in the Healthy Minds Program app can also give you an opportunity to try out different anchors and find the ones that feel right for you. You never know, this work now might just be the answer for you later during moments of crisis. Good luck on your hunt for your personal anchor!

Get more practices and tips by downloading the Healthy Minds Program App, freely available thanks to the generosity of our donors wherever you get your apps.

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