Mindfulness - What Is It And How Can It Help Us?
There is a lot of talk, publicity, and attention being paid to something called ‘Mindfulness’ which is supposed to be a new way of being aware of ourselves and the world around us. Research papers and articles are emerging thick and fast about how Mindfulness can be used to work with anxiety, stress, depression, pain, illness, addiction, the list of human conditions it can benefit are, seemingly, endless . . . but what actually is this MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness has been described as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally” by Jon Kabat-Zinn who has been credited with introducing the basic concepts of Mindfulness to the Western world. He has been at the forefront of transforming Eastern philosophy and meditation practices into Western medicine mind/body work which has helped thousands of people cope better with stress, anxiety, depression, pain and illness.
Mindfulness techniques and approaches are based on Eastern ancient philosophy and practices, but they are not used in therapeutic ways as part of any religious tradition. They are seen as valuable body/mind life skills to develop more skilful and helpful ways of relating to everyday life.
In simple terms, Mindfulness is a way of being and becoming more aware of what is going on within and around us, noticing when we’re on automatic pilot instead of being fully present in the moment.
All of us - whether we are counsellors, clients, counselling supervisors, or psychotherapists – can have days when we seem to rush around mindlessly on 'auto-pilot' with our 'to do' lists, and our brains concentrating on dozens of things and trying to juggle them at the same time. At those times we may only have a superficial awareness of how we are truly feeling underneath our 'auto-pilot'. Everyday life distracts our attention from our true selves, pulling our energy in so many different directions that we find ourselves unable to focus, concentrate or make aware choices because we firefighting the next challenge or difficulty.
With our busy 21st century lifestyles and the current economic climate adding to our pressures of everyday living and what the future might hold, many of us are aware of how our internal 'autopilots' in rush rush mode can overload our minds and bodies and lead to tension, anxiety, stress, depression, and/or to pain and illness. Few of us know how to handle the difficult emotions and challenging physical symptoms that may result. Some of us turn to doctors or therapists or medication to deal with these uncomfortable sensations which may not always seem to have a direct connection to anything we ourselves are doing.
By contrast, Mindfulness can bring us to our senses and allow us to live a more fully aware life as it focuses our attention on the present moment . . . and the next . . . moment by moment.
Mindfulness training practice involves developing exercises in breathing deeper and with more awareness; learning how to meditate - sitting, lying down, or moving; being taught new gentle mindful movement exercises; and developing a daily mindfulness practice which with increasing awareness shows us how to be in our natural state of mind, focused on what we are choosing to do and fully aware of our choices.
More and more evidence is emerging to show how Mindfulness techniques and practices can benefit people dealing with challenging emotional and physical conditions:
Reduce blood pressure and stroke risk
Researchers who tracked 200 people as they underwent meditation training found that those who meditated regularly as a result had lower blood pressure and a 50% reduction in strokes, deaths and heart attacks.
Research shows that meditation can have greater pain relief effects than medication. In one study, researchers found just one hour of meditation training reduced pain by nearly half. It’s thought meditation reduces activity in the parts of the brain processing pain, and also increases activity where the brain stores its experience of pain and develops coping mechanisms.
Last year the NHS spent more than £440 million pounds on painkillers, some of which have complicated side effects. Our human desire to move away from pain as quickly as possible is absolutely understandable. But if we knew there were safer, more natural and yet effective ways of dealing with pain, then why wouldn’t we want to explore these possibilities? Painkillers have an important role in modern medicine, but if doing 20 minutes of meditation a day could reduce the need to take so many painkillers, why would we not want to try it out?
Meditation has been long recommended as a way to relax, but a recent study found evidence showing how well it really does work. Scientists were able to prove increased neuron connectivity was found in the parts of the brain that are important for regulating emotional behaviour and dealing with conflict.
Reduce anxiety and stress
Research studies have discovered that meditation actually decreases levels of the stress-causing hormone, Cortisol. Research participants taught to meditate for just 20 minutes a day for five days had less anxiety and lower levels of the hormone than a group taught other relaxation techniques. Those who meditated also had lower levels of anger and fatigue.
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Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone of any faith or religion and involves training the mind and doesn't enforce any religious belief system. Mindfulness skills may be practiced by anyone, whatever their background or spiritual beliefs, and the practice of Mindfulness can deepen their human capacity to live more meaningful, balanced and peaceful, grounded lives.
The two main approaches developed in recent years as therapeutic strategies towards working with people with stress, anxiety and depression are Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), both of which are taught over a number of sessions and are completely secular in nature.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the USA during the late 1970s to help people with a wide range of physical and mental health problems. Since then, thousands of people have completed the basic MBSR programme which is an intensive experiential training in mindfulness and enables participants to access their own resources for responding more effectively to stress, pain and illness.
The teaching of MBSR has been extensively developed in hospitals and clinics for staff, medical students and patients, also in inner-city areas, prisons, companies, law firms, universities, schools and government departments. Evidence-based research shows MBSR to be effective in helping chronic pain and fatigue, depression, anxiety, life stress, psoriasis, cancer amongst many other conditions, and it also provides a framework in supporting self-care.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
Over the past 12 years Professor Mark Williams, Dr John Teasdale and Professor Zindel Segal in the United Kingdom have further developed Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for the treatment of depression, inspired out of the MBSR programme. The aim of MBCT is to help people liable to relapsing depression to stay well. MBCT combines Mindfulness and Cognitive Therapy to introduce skills offering people with relapsing depression a different way of relating to their experience. It can help prevent them repeating negative patterns of thinking and feeling that may escalate towards depressive relapse.
MBCT is now recommended in guidelines of the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) within the NHS as a treatment for people who have suffered 3 or more episodes of depression. The Mental Health Foundation has also recently launched a campaign to increase awareness of, and access to mindfulness-based courses across the National Health Service and related services.
Mindfulness-based approaches can be used by individuals from all walks of life, and with many varying physical and emotional conditions. They can be used by therapists to work with clients experiencing numerous emotional and physical conditions. And just as importantly, they can benefit therapists themselves in keeping emotionally healthy to work with their clients and fit for practice. The value and number of uses of Mindfulness in therapy and everyday life are growing even as you read this article.
How do you think Mindfulness could benefit you?