Mindfulness. What’s it all about and why should I care? It may appear to be very trendy at the moment but it’s actually been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Its received increasing interest over the past few years as it’s benefits have been repeatedly confirmed through numerous studies. The benefits are indisputable and they are many.
What is Mindfulness?
A common definition states it is paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. I would also add to this that being mindful allows us to notice we are not our thoughts and feelings – that we can observe them without judging or engaging with them.
It has benefits both in the moments we are being mindful as well as having knock on benefits in the times when we’re not. Because it influences our relationship with our experiences, thoughts and feelings it cannot help but influence all areas of our life.
Mindfulness allows both the body and mind to relax and is therefore a direct antidote to the ‘stress response’. It creates space so we can choose how to respond instead of just reacting.
What it isn’t
As there can be mixed messages on the subject in more mainstream media I thought it would be helpful to also clarify what it isn’t.
It isn’t zoning out. The whole point is that you are alert and focused.
It isn’t a religion. Nor do you have to practice a particular religion in order to practice and benefit from mindfulness. Mindfulness is part of a number of religious and spiritual practices but following these is not a requirement.
Another common misconception is that mindfulness, or indeed meditation in general is ‘trying not to think’. Thinking is part of the human condition. To try not to think is a nigh on impossible task. The more you try to control your thoughts the more resistance you will experience. If you just notice your thoughts, accept them as just being thoughts, no judgement or engagement with them, you’ll find it to be a very different experience.
Sometimes people have different ideas of what mindfulness is. This came up recently with a client. She said she would love to be able to escape from all her worrying. I asked if she was aware of mindfulness. She said she was aware of it and had an idea of what it involved. When I explained the basics to her, just as I’ve done above, she said that it was very different to what she thought it was. She was actually really excited at the prospect of practicing mindfulness and making it part of her daily routine. She could see how being more mindful could help reduce her levels of worry.
Research on mindfulness has identified the following benefits:
Reduced rumination, stress, emotional reactivity as well as decreasing task effort and having thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand.
Improves working memory, our ability to focus, cognitive flexibility and increases information processing speed.
It can enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation.
Health benefits include increased immune functioning, improvement to well-being and reduction in psychological distress.
A research study published by the University of Oxford in 2013 showed that, on average, after one month of undertaking the Be Mindful Online course participants enjoyed:
A 58% reduction in anxiety levels
A 57% reduction in depression
A 40% reduction in stress
Another study of the same course showed:
A 25% decrease in rumination
A 26% reduction in fatigue
A 33% improved sleep quality
The Oxford Centre for Mindfulness has found that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) prevents depression and reduces the recurrence rate over 12 months by 40–50% compared with usual care. This makes MBCT as effective at reducing recurrence as antidepressants.
In the UK, the Government’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has recommended MBCT in their Guidelines for Management of Depression for those who have had three or more episodes of depression.
It doesn’t just affect how we feel. It isn’t all in our head, it influences how our physical body responds as well. A study in the journal Health Psychology shows an association between increased mindfulness and decreased levels of cortisol a stress hormone.
Researchers from the University of California, found that mindfulness meditation helped decrease feelings of loneliness among the elderly and boost their health by reducing the expression of genes linked with inflammation.
It could also benefit people we interact with, by making us more compassionate, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science.
Results don’t have to take a long time to develop. In a 2010 study published in the Consciousness and Cognition Journal, researchers found that after only four sessions of mindfulness meditation training the results were impressive. A control group listened to an audiobook instead of practicing mindfulness. Results showed that both the mindfulness meditation training group and the control group showed improved mood, but only meditation training group showed reduced fatigue and anxiety and increased mindfulness. Brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory and executive functioning.
I recommend mindfulness to most of my clients as it’s so effective at changing how we can think and feel about whats going on in our lives. Yes it takes practice but it doesn’t have to take up masses of time and its free to do.
How To Practice Mindfulness
So how do you practice mindfulness? There are different ways.
Very traditional ways to practice mindfulness include Tai Chi, Qigong and Yoga. These are moving forms of mindfulness meditation. Other examples of less traditional activities include things like gardening, running and other sports, arts and crafts, playing music. Any activity where you are completely in the moment and absorbed in what you are doing without judgement.
When doing a moving practice you place all your attention and focus onto what you are doing. How your body is moving, what you can feel, see, hear, taste and smell. You’re not trying to change anything, just notice. If your mind wanders, which it may well do, you simply bring your attention back to what you are doing. Continue this process for the duration of the activity.
It is also possible to practice mindfulness for short periods of time as you carry out daily tasks and activities that you would usually do without thinking about. Examples include things like brushing your teeth, preparing and eating food, housework, walking, commuting, stroking your pet etc. These are perfect opportunities to become more mindful without it taking up any extra time in your day. Again you focus entirely on what you are doing and experiencing in the moment. Not trying to change anything just observing without judgement.
Sitting meditation is considered a formal practice. It can be more challenging than a moving practice especially when you’re just learning. That said it complements moving practice and helps build your mind muscles so is well worth persevering with. I’d suggest that you start for a short period of time say 10 minutes and then increase that as it becomes easier for you. If you could practice for 10 minutes a day most days, it won’t take long before you start to feel the benefits.
You want to be sitting comfortably, back upright and body relaxed. It is absolutely fine to sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. You don’t have to sit cross legged on the floor and I’d suggest you only do so if this is going to be comfortable for you. When doing a sitting mindfulness meditation you decide how long you will meditate for and set a timer. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed begin to focus on your breath. Place all your attention and focus on your breathing. Notice each in breath and out breath. Not changing anything, just noticing each breath. It is pretty inevitable that your mind will wander. As soon as you notice its wandered, bring your attention back to your breathing. Repeat this process until the timer goes off.
An analogy to help explain the process of mindful meditation is a running stream or river. Imagine yourself standing by the edge of a stream. Something floats by, it’s one of your thoughts or feelings, just notice it as it floats by. You stay on the bank of the stream and just observe, not judging or changing anything. This is the same relationship with your thoughts and feelings you want to develop when meditating.
There are many things you can focus on whilst doing a sitting practice. The breath is used traditionally as it is always with us, so we can always choose to move our focus to it. We don’t have to think about our breathing for it to happen either. Counting the breaths can help with our focus when meditating. Examples of other things we can focus on include sounds we can hear and the sensations of the body. Body scan is a common mindfulness technique. Using audio recordings can be really helpful to support you during a sitting mediation. I really love Headspace. Their blog articles are really interesting and they offer a 10 day free trail of their audio service.
When carrying out mindfulness meditation/practice the aim is to observe without judgement and without changing anything. You will find though, that you become more mindful in your daily life. When you become aware of how you are thinking or feeling about something in daily life you can choose to change it. Being mindful provides you with a space in which you can choose how you want to respond, instead of just reacting. You will probably also find that you become better able to accept things in life as they are, without judging them or feeling compelled to try and change them. This can really make a massive difference in how you experience life moving forward.
Mindfulness is really powerful. You can use it for your own reasons in your own way. There is a mass of information and resources on the subject which you may find helpful. Do remember though that in order to benefit from mindfulness you do need to practice it. It is something you do and the more often you can be mindful the bigger an impact it will have on you.
If you’d like some help to integrate mindfulness into your routine get in contact
You can also check to see whether I have a Mindfulness workshop coming up