Mindfulness is a meditation technique that aims at focusing the mind on the present moment. A recent report, using data from 47 clinical trials involving 3,000 participants, shows that mindfulness can help alleviate feelings of stress and enhance quality of life. It also evidenced that mindfulness brings measurable improvements of up to 20% in symptoms of anxiety and depression as compared to people who practise another activity to reduce stress and improve mood.
So what is mindfulness, and how does it work?
People often think that it is another way of describing meditation. But, unlike meditation, mindfulness does not involve focusing concentration on a word or sound. The idea behind mindfulness is that you achieve a relaxed and open awareness of your thoughts, feelings and sensations moment by moment. It is the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not over-reacting to, or being overwhelmed by, the world around us.
What mindfulness does have in common with meditation is that it comes from the practises of Buddhist who have been doing a version of it for two and a half thousand years. Western thought cottoned on to mindfulness in the late 1970s, and began introducing it to medicine, initially as a management technique in chronic pain cases. More recently big corporations and organisations such as Google, Transport for London, the Home Office, and your local university, primary or secondary schools, have started to run mindfulness training for their employees and students.
This is in recognition that if people can learn not to overthink or “live in their heads”, but instead begin to focus on their experience as it unfolds moment to moment, they will be better able to avoid common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. The theory being that if we can connect with what is going on for us in the present, calmly noting our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations we will be better able to manage them And, rather than risk getting trapped in the difficult times of the past or consumed by fear of an uncertain future, we can live in the here and now and take things as they come. This fortifies us to cope with the pace, stress and challenges of our adult lives.
None of this of course is instant. You cannot just step outside, breathe slowly and become magically mindful, you have to train yourself and work at it. And, gradually you will find yourself noticing when your regular patterns of thought take over and engulf or control you. Once you have begun to notice this you can bring yourself back into the present and deal with those patterns.
Most mindfulness teachers and practitioners recommend that you start by setting yourself a daily mindfulness practice. So you take five to 15 minutes a day to sit in a quiet place, start to breathe deeply from your abdomen, pay attention to your body, and concentrate your mind on observing what is going on for you in those minutes. This, as you can imagine, is not as easy as it sounds; stopping your mind from wandering can feel near impossible at the beginning. There is, of course, help at hand, retreats, courses, apps and trained practitioners to help you start out on your mission for mindfulness.
Six ways of enhancing your mindfulness
You don’t need special equipment or cushioned mats, but you do need to find a quiet place and set aside some time for this every day, even just a few minutes as long as you are consistent
The aim is not to quiet the mind, or to achieve a near-spiritual state of calm, but to pay attention to mind and body in the present moment
- Ignore any judgments
If you notice yourself being judgmental of yourself or others during your mindfulness practice, let it pass, try to let your judgment just roll on out of your mind
- Come back
Inevitably your mind will go off on different trains of thought, try not to give up at this point, but just bring yourself back to the present moment
- Be kind
You have to accept that this is a muscle that needs to be built up, and it is a tricky thing to do, so don’t judge yourself for letting the thoughts take over, just practice recognising when this has happened, and gently bring yourself back into the moment.
- Take it out
Once you have begun to feel more comfortable with the basic principles of mindfulness you can begin applying it to your daily activities and have a mindful walk to work, or a mindful lunch break where you sit and eat with no distractions just focusing on how it feels to eat that sandwich, etc.
If you would like to learn more about how mindfulness can help you, we have a team of counsellors and therapists who will be able to help. For more information, call 020 8673 4545 or email [email protected] and they will be able to help you find you the right therapist for you or book you in to a workshop.