What is Mindfulness?
Simply put, mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, without judgement. In essence it is a series of techniques which train our minds to do this, with clinically proven benefits for anxiety, stress, pain and depression. It is also proven to reduce pain, increase happiness and improve focus and concentration.
Mindfulness practice teaches us how to deal differently with life’s challenges, whatever they may be; it trains our minds to stay in the present moment.
That sounds simple but think of something that worries you, then ask yourself, ‘Is that worry happening in the future, later today, tomorrow, next month, next year?’ Or ‘Is it to do with the past? For example, should‘ve, could’ve, why didn’t I? Then ask yourself, ‘Am I ok in this present moment, right now? You will be and you will recognise that we often lose sight of the fact that in this present moment, we are fine!
This simple way of beginning to be aware of how our mind works and can play tricks on us can begin the process of being mindful. In these challenging times this ability is more important than ever. It’s so easy to catastrophize and before long our mood is low and dealing with difficulty seems impossible.
Over time mindfulness enables us to bring our attention back when it has wandered and we can also use our bodies to ground us and stop that flow of thoughts through the mind. Over time this creates greater calm and clarity which impacts directly on physical and mental health.
In short, mindfulness encourages us to be fully present and engaged with whatever we are doing in the moment and less caught up in our thoughts and feelings. We are more in control of ourselves and learn how to respond rather than react, whatever comes our way.
Mindfulness is secular, which means whatever our background, education, religion or nationality we can learn and benefit from these skills.
Benefits of practicing Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a powerful tool that has become very popular in recent years. It is approved by the NHS as a treatment for depression and anxiety, pain and many stress related health conditions. Many businesses offer workplace courses and participants report significant changes to their lives with both physical and mental well-being improving.
Practicing mindfulness can result in the following:
· Improved concentration and focus
· Increased confidence
· Reduced stress
· Improved sleep
· Better relationships both at work and home
· Reduced depression and anxiety
· Improved memory
· Feeling more calm
· Less overwhelmed with racing thoughts
· Better tolerance of others
· Better decision making
· Improved responses in challenging situations
· Less reactivity
· Anger management
· More able to deal with emotions, feelings and physical sensations
· Reduced pain
· Lower blood pressure
· Increased understanding and empathy
How does Mindfulness Work?
With mindfulness, we learn a different way of responding to thoughts, emotions and physical sensations.
Practicing mindfulness allows the brain’s natural neuroplasticity to make changes to habitual thought patterns and behaviours. The truth is that the way we use our mind can shape the organ of our brain, as is proven by research at leading universities.
After only 8 weeks of mindfulness practice the area of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, planning and problem solving and the area for learning and memory show thickening and strengthening.
New neural pathways can be built which turn the mind towards greater feelings of calm and happiness and diminish those that relate to anxiety and fear. When difficult thoughts do arise, practitioners are able to deal with them in a more positive way.
Mindfulness needs practice but as with all skills, the more you practice the better you get. When we decide to learn mindfulness we are changing habits of mind we’ve had for 20, 30, 40 or more years, but benefits can be immediately felt.
When you practice, you will probably notice that you feel calm and relaxed. Over time you might start to notice that it's easier to focus your attention on things like work or listening. You may begin to feel calmer and more patient in your everyday life. You may find that when things go wrong, or not as expected, you can handle them better.
Being mindful improves every area of life, engaging in practice every day helps embed this valuable skill as well as making changes to the brain.
These simple exercises can help you begin your mindfulness journey.
As you do each exercise, you will find that your mind wanders after a minute or two. That's normal — minds do that. Your job is to gently bring your attention back to the thing you are focused on. The more you practice doing that, the better you train your brain to pay attention.
With this exercise, you focus your attention on breathing. You want to pay attention to your breath in an easy way — on purpose, but not forced.
1. Sit up in a comfortable way. Close your eyes.
2. Notice your breathing as you inhale and exhale normally. Just pay attention to your breath as it goes in and out. This may simply be the rise and fall of the chest.
3. Pay attention to how the breath gently moves your body. Can you notice your belly or your chest moving as you breathe?
3. Sit for a few minutes, just paying attention to your gentle breathing. See how relaxed you can feel just sitting, breathing in and out.
4. When your mind starts to wander and think about something else, gently guide your attention back to your breathing. Do this with gentleness, ‘ah, there it goes again’, noticing the mind wandering is part of the process.
5. It can be helpful to set a timer on your phone for 5 minutes as you do this, over time you may want to extend the practice to 10, 15 or 20 minutes.
This exercise is about paying attention to how your body moves as you walk slowly.
1. To start, pick up one foot and take a step forward, in slow motion. Pay attention to how you naturally keep your balance.
2. Now walk in slow motion, step by step. Notice how your arms and legs and feet move. Pay attention to how your knees bend and straighten, as you lift one foot and then the other, nice and slow.
3. Breathe in and out, in time with your steps. See if you can keep your attention focused on walking slowly, step by step, as you relax and breathe.
4. Whenever your mind wanders, gently guide it back to your s-l-o-w motion moving. Keep breathing, in and out, as you enjoy moving in slow motion
These simple practices can give you a taster of how mindfulness can benefit you.
There are many other practices and throughout a mindfulness course we learn different techniques and also focus on using mindfulness to deal with difficulties and how to bring it into communication, work and family relationships and everyday life.