What is mindfulness for?
To reduce craving – the more stressed we are the more we seek external stimulants to relieve the symptoms of stress – exchanging one chemical (such as dopamine) to compensate for another (such as cortisol). This increases craving, sensation-seeking and risk-taking behaviours. However, the more we become attuned to our internal states, the more we improve our sense of wellbeing and contentment in life. If you spend all day in a stressed or anxious state without realising it, the more urgent it becomes to relieve the tension with instant gratification – like food, smoking, drugs, alcohol, sweets or sexual relief. As our anxiety reduces so does our craving for instant gratification. In less volatile emotional states we actively seek out sensations that will nourish, protect and satisfy our needs without the intensity of emotional spikes and troughs. Mindful breathing is the first exercise we learn to help us reduce craving, by creating relaxed states of mind. This improves the transmission of serotonin or GABA in the brain – creating optimal flows of awareness, focus and thinking.
To reduce anxiety and panic – mindful breathing literally reduces high anxiety or panic attacks. When our amygdala senses danger in the brain it emits neurochemicals to put the body into a state of high-alert, known as ‘fight or flight’. Flooding the body with stress hormones like adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol. This triggers a faster heartrate, shallower breathing, higher blood sugar levels and primes all our muscles with tension and spasms in preparation for ‘fight and flight’ – even when there is no danger. In fact all our internal organs are put into a state of high-alert and therefore stress. Our lungs are the only organs which operate under conscious voluntary control. We can therefore regulate our breathing to stimulate the vagus nerve and deactivate stress or reduce anxiety. We may have become so inured to stress, or even crave it, that we miss the signs of physiological stress and fail to recognise it until it has escalated to high-pitch levels. Over time, regular mindfulness of breathing creates new neural pathways and a ‘body-memory’ which unconsciously picks-up the signs of stress and automatically regulates them before they escalate.
To reduce anger and frustration – ‘fight and flight’ in anxious or stressful situations triggers natural aggression and anger to fight-off the perceived threat. This makes us more predisposed to an angry outburst, aggressive behaviour, defensiveness and/or violence to relieve our stress. If this becomes a repetitive pattern the brain takes an instant shortcut to relief by expressing anger. Mindful breathing helps us take a pause, slow-down and step back from knee-jerk expressions of anger.
Inhibiting the flow of anxious thoughts – mindful breathing helps to regulate the flow of GABA in the brain, which slows down the stream of excessive worrying and overthinking. Gaba helps to prevent us getting caught up in negative patterns of thought when cortisol is running the show in our anxious brain.
Being present – mindfulness helps us to unhook ourselves from the past and the looming future. It helps us focus on the deep sensations of mindful breathing and focusses the mind on connecting with the body in the present moment. By continually turning our attention to the breath we are more likely to focus on the present moment and come out of our thoughts. By staying with each moment emerging from the cycle of our breath, the mind stops racing or producing thoughts. This stops us screen-playing the future as if it were ‘catastrophe waiting to happen’. It reduces the noise and distraction of the internal critic or negative internal dialogue. And it takes us away from becoming immersed in painful memories of the past. Being more present, means being less lost in our thoughts, excessive worry or regret. It means paying attention to the process and remaining open to change – learning as you go along, rather than narrowly fixated on an outcome that may never come. Or may never meet your expectations, leading to disappointment and regret.
To improve self-regulation – at one level when we breathe mindfully and pay attention fully to the sensation of our breath we connect our mind and body. The breath is like a bridge between our conscious mind and our bodily sensations – It brings about an awareness of our bodily states. Whatever stimulus we take into the body is through our senses. This stimulates and sometimes over-stimulates our body, putting us into a state of stress. Mindful breathing activates the vagus nerve which relieves us of anxiety by releasing neuro-transmitters like GABA to bring relief. The breath refreshes us, reanimates the body, releases tension, reduces our heartrate, helps us slow down and take a pause; allowing us to rest and give a sense unrestricted space. This helps us self-regulate our sensory perceptions and emotional states.
To slow down and reduce urgency – mindful breathing slows down our heartrate, reduces cortisol and blood sugar levels, and also produces gamma waves in the brain to create states of calm and equilibrium. We produce higher levels of GABA, serotonin and endorphins in the brain which helps us feel better about ourselves and more confident. This stops the amygdala priming our body with a sense of urgency or an excessive need ‘to get things done’. Often we convince ourselves unnecessarily to get more-and-more stuff done in an effort to stave of anticipated disasters and regain a sense of control. But it just stores up problems later on and gives us a repeated sense of failure as we never meet our expectations. This causes us to feel stuck. Mindful breathing gets us out of this trap; enabling us to clear the mind and be more selective about which problems to solve.
To reduce avoidant or inhibitory behaviour – the other side of fight is flight or escape. When we automatically avoid people, events or situations like conflict, it is because anxiety is inhibiting us from taking an approach behaviour to resolve our problems. Mindfulness means learning how to readjust our posture, non-verbal interactions, body language and keeps us grounded so we can feel more confident in ourselves and trust our instincts to support us in any decisions we take.
To improve wellbeing, satisfaction and fulfilment – mindfulness such as grounding, mindful thinking and feeling, allows us to pay more attention to the things we value in life and improve our sense of wellbeing. It helps us focus on taking time alone, fulfilling activities, as well as being in the moment with loved ones, family and friends, rather than the distractions of endlessly chasing dreams that never materialise. Mindfulness helps us feel a more substantial sense of self – at ease in our own skin. It creates more contentment, safety and sufficiency; without constantly scanning the horizon for the next best thing that will make us happy. And usually stoking up more anxiety when it fails to satisfy. We stop solving our problems through sensation-seeking, taking unnecessary risks, having affairs or taking roller-coaster rides to nowhere.
To improve self-awareness – when we give ourselves time and pay more attention to our sensory experience and present needs, we become less distracted. We begin to focus on the things that really matter to us rather than get lost in pointless engagements or situations which are of very little benefit to us. Real change means paying attention to the process and remaining open to change – learning as you go along, rather than narrowly fixated on an outcome that may never come, leading to disappointment and regret.
To improve connectedness to ourselves and others – when we are more attuned to our own sensations and emotions, we are more likely to feel attuned to others. Compassion and care for ourselves helps us feel more connected to others. By taking care of our own needs first, we become more available to others for emotional support and feel less resentful. Helping create separate boundaries so we can pursue our interests, rather than fix or mend other people. But by being less stressed and emotionally available to others we produce higher levels of oxytocin which helps us with bonding and developing deeper levels of intimacy.
None of the practices you will learn in mindfulness are a magical panacea. Mindfulness is not a set of quickly learned techniques. It does not lead to instant gratification. Mindfulness takes time to learn and embed (like any new language or activity) – and it needs to be an ongoing process of practice and renewal so you can integrate it into your everyday life. The practice of mindfulness is very simple and easy to learn, but it requires patience and frequent, repeated practice to bring about genuine change. Sometimes people are impatient to learn and achieve immediate outcomes. However, most people have learned to internalise embedded patterns of behaviour, anxiety and stress over a whole lifetime. So it takes time and resolve to learn how to practice mindfulness. The benefits of mindfulness aren’t life-changing miracles that appear overnight, but they can bring about a genuine sense of wellbeing that is real and long-lasting.