One of the buzzwords of the decade, mindfulness has been associated with everything from boosting students’ mental health during exams to weight loss and beating festive stress.
Are the news reports true? Does mindfulness really have healing and transformational powers?
The answer is yes, and we’ll explore how in this post. For a better idea of what mindfulness is, we’ll start with the dictionary definition:
Mindful. To be conscious or aware of something – Oxford Dictionary.
In line with this definition, mindfulness is the act of turning our attention to the present. That is, being aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment, at each moment.
Although this may sound simple, our minds often deviate from the present when we become engrossed thinking about previous events and when we strategise or worry about the future,for example if one is moving abroad or something else that could otherwise be potentially stressful. In consequence, many of us rarely live fully in the present and often leads to stress and anxiety.
To improve our mental wellbeing, we need to start paying more attention to the present moment. This is where mindfulness comes in.
When we drift away, mindfulness can snap us back into the moment, into what we are doing and feeling – rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. And as we become more conscious of our present reality, we can better appreciate our world and gain self-awareness.
Greater mindfulness also enhances our wellbeing through cultivating a more objective, flexible, and non-reactive stance towards our inner experiences. This improves our ability to regulate our emotions, equipping us with appropriate coping mechanisms and responses to scenarios in our daily lives. With practice, we can gain the ability to be fully present and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by our surroundings.
The benefits of mindfulness
We can start to reap the physical, psychological and social benefits of mindfulness within weeks. Mindfulness can improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to an increasing amount of research. The practice is even recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a measure of preventing depression.
Some other benefits of mindfulness include:
- Improving the immune system’s ability to fight off illness
- Enhancing sleep quality
- Increasing positive emotions, reducing negative emotions and stress
- Sharpening concentration and improving our memory, attentive skills, and decision-making abilities
- Developing resilience. Mindfulness studies have has been shown to help people facing post-traumatic stress disorder, women who suffered child abuse, and caregivers.
- Encouraging healthier eating habits and helping people lose weight
- Better relationships: Research suggests mindfulness training can enhance couples’ levels of relationship satisfaction, autonomy and acceptance of each other, while reducing relationship distress. Mindful couples may also recover more quickly from conflict.
- Giving us a stronger sense of self and a greater ability to act in line with our values.
How to be more mindful
We can all take steps to develop our mindfulness in our daily lives. Reminding yourself to take notice of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and the world around you is the first step.
To start practicing mindfulness:
Notice the sights, sounds, and smells that you’re experiencing in any given moment. Tune into your body’s sensations, from the breeze whooshing past you on the street, to the taste of the food you eat and water tapping your skin in the shower. Pay attention to your breathing, especially when you’re feeling intense emotions
These actions may seem small, but they can be highly effective in breaking the autopilot mode we often run our everyday lives in. Watching your thoughts is another important way of practising mindfulness.
Observe your thoughts
Many people find it difficult to practice mindfulness. As soon as they stop what they’re doing and find a moment to breathe, a swarm of thoughts and worries rush to the forefront of their minds. It may be useful to remember that mindfulness is not about pushing away these thoughts and feelings, but rather about seeing them objectively as mental events and accepting them in a non-judgemental way.
Once you understand that your thoughts and emotions are transitory and do not define or control you, you are one step closer to dealing with negative feelings more productively.
“[Mindfulness] lets us stand back from our thoughts and start to see their patterns. Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply ‘mental events’ that do not have to control us.” explains Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. “It may be useful to ask yourself: ‘Is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful, or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts?’” he added.
Set aside time to be mindful
Allocate time each day to practice mindfulness, reset your focus and re-energise your mind. This could be during your morning journey to work, or a lunchtime walk.
You can practise mindfulness anywhere, but it can be especially useful when you catch your thoughts in a cycle of reliving past problems or worries about the future.
Some people find it easier to become mindful by practicing pilates, gentle yoga or tai-chi, which can help develop awareness of breathing.
As well as practising mindfulness in your daily life, it can be helpful to set aside time each day for a more formal personal mindfulness meditation – even five to 10 minutes on a regular basis can be highly effective. Here is a quick guide to your first meditation:
- Choose a place where you can meditate undistracted
- You can start with five minutes each morning / evening
- Sit in an upright position on a chair, or cross-legged on the floor.
- Close your eyes
- Focus on your breathe, and your stomach rising and falling as you inhale and exhale.
- Turn your attention to your five senses: touch, taste, scent, sight and sound.
- Feel your body resting on your chair, and the skin of your hands gently resting on the floor/ on your lap.
- Hear the sound of the rain / birds outside
- This will enable you to experience the richness of colours, smells, sounds and feel of your everyday.
- Keep this awareness and focus on the flow of your breath as you inhale and exhale
- Give attention to the out-breath, as you practice releasing your thoughts and feelings.
- Repeat the process of maintaining attention on the breath, as it naturally comes in and goes out.
- When you find that you are lost in a thought, simply return your attention, very gently, to the breath, acting as anchor the present moment. Follow the breath as it slowly goes out and dissolves.
- Repeat this pattern, following the breath, until the end of your meditation.
HeadSpace is a useful introductory app that provides guided meditation sessions and mindfulness training. The Mental Health Foundation also has useful online mindfulness courses and offers details of local mindfulness teachers.
Next, find out why sleep is so important for a healthy mind and body.