As humans, we have a tendency to work on autopilot a lot of the time - completing tasks automatically without really giving them any thought. Consider your drive to work in the morning - are you thinking about changing gears and steering, or are you mentally planning the day ahead? Have you ever eaten a snack while working/watching TV only to later find yourself with an empty packet and no memory of having eaten anything? These are both perfect examples of mindlessness - something many of us can relate to.
Mindfulness aims to reconnect us with ourselves to alleviate stress. It also helps us to feel more attuned with our emotions and generally more aware of ourselves both mentally and physically.
On this page
- What is mindfulness?
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction
- Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy
- Origins of mindfulness
What is mindfulness?
The Mental Health Foundation has reported that anxiety and depression are the two most common mental health issues within the UK; something that could, in part, be attributed to busy modern lives. Multitasking and juggling commitments has become commonplace, with many people feeling as if they aren't truly present in their own lives.
Mindfulness is a specific way of paying attention to what is happening in our lives in the present moment, as it truly is. Of course it won't eliminate life's pressures - but with practice it can help us take notice of (and hopefully stop) negative, habitual reactions to everyday stress.
The most common way this technique is practiced is through mindfulness meditation. This usually involves practitioners focusing on sights, sounds and physical sensations while trying to reduce 'brain chatter'. Some people struggle with mindfulness meditation at first, finding it hard to focus their attention, but this is to be expected and may require practice. Practicing the technique regularly can help people take a step back, acknowledge their 'brain chatter' and view it accurately and without judgement.
Other forms of mindfulness practice may involve physical movement. Exercises such as yoga and Tai Chi both involve meditative movements that can help improve physical self-awareness and quiet the mind.
While these types of mindfulness practices are useful for everyone, those with mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression may benefit from a more structured therapy that incorporates mindfulness, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
In small doses, stress helps us rise to challenges and pushes us to act. In the long-term however, too much stress can be detrimental to our well-being as these feelings begin to internalise and eat away at us. Symptoms of stress include loss of appetite, insomnia, anger, anxiety and even chest pains. Research has shown that people who are under prolonged stress are at a greater risk of developing health problems such as high blood pressure and heart attacks.
MBSR looks to help people cope with stress using mindfulness techniques such as gentle stretching, mindfulness meditation and other mind-body exercises. The aim is to offer a greater clarity on what is happening, to help people recognise stress triggers and deal with them in a productive manner. According to the Mental Health Foundation, the majority of those who take part in MBSR courses are reported to feel more engaged in work, less anxious and have fewer physical symptoms of stress.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
Designed specifically to help those prone to recurring depression, MBCT combines mindfulness techniques (such as meditation, stretching and breathing exercises) with elements of cognitive therapy that help break negative thought patterns.
As well as helping those with recurrent depression, this therapy has been proven to help with a variety of mental health issues, including:
- anxiety disorders
- bipolar disorders
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- obsessive compulsive disorder.
Origins of mindfulness
The concept behind mindfulness originated in the Buddhist religion, where it was considered to be of 'great importance' in the path of enlightenment. Rather than believing in a personal God, Buddhists follow the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (known as 'The Buddha', or the 'enlightened one'), with the goal of reaching a state of nirvana/enlightenment. The practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom are thought by Buddhists to lead to the path of enlightenment.
The Buddha himself advocated mindfulness and encouraged his followers to establish mindfulness in day-to-day life, maintaining a calm awareness of one's mind and body.
Jon Kabat-Zinn brought the concept of mindfulness over to Western society in the 1970s. Kabat-Zinn was a student of Zen Master Seung Sahn and it was his practice of yoga and studies of the Buddhist religion that led him to integrate these concepts with those of Western science to create mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
In the 1990s John Teasdale, Mark Williams and Zindel Seagal further developed the concept of MBSR to help those suffering from depression, creating mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
In recent years mindfulness techniques have gained steam in the counselling world after a string of clinical studies supported its effectiveness. GPs and counsellors are learning more about mindfulness and in many situations it is not only recommended, but also prescribed to those who could benefit. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has also clinically approved MBCT as a 'treatment of choice' for those with recurrent depression.
Benefits of mindfulness
Since the concept of mindfulness arrived in the west in the 1970s the claimed benefits have been substantiated by several clinical studies. The aim of mindfulness is to help individuals do the following:
- recognise, slow down or even stop negative, habitual reactions
- see situations with more clarity
- respond more effectively to situations
- enhance creativity
- feel more balanced at work and at home.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, studies looking at the effectiveness of MBSR have reported the following benefits:
- 70% reduction in anxiety
- ongoing reduction in anxiety after taking MBSR course
- fewer visits to the doctors
- increase in disease-fighting antibodies
- better quality of sleep
- fewer negative feelings, including tension, anger and depression
- improvements in physical conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and psoriasis.
The evidence has been so strong in fact that nearly three-quarters of GPs have said they feel all patients would benefit by learning mindfulness meditation.
Further studies into the role of mindfulness in the workplace are showing that it could improve productivity, decrease sickness absence and generally improve workplace well-being.
What else can mindfulness help with?
We have already discussed how mindfulness can be used to help people cope with issues such as stress, anxiety and depression, but what other issues could mindfulness help with?
Mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia looks to integrate behaviour therapy and sleep science with the meditation practices of mindfulness. The goal is to help increase awareness so individuals recognise and react accordingly to the mental and physical states that occur with chronic insomnia.
While initially, the idea of paying more attention to your physical sensations when you suffer from chronic pain may seem counter-intuitive, it is thought that mindfulness can help. The idea here is that instead of focusing on the negative thought patterns that emerge upon feeling the physical sensation of pain, sufferers should view their pain with curiosity. This is so the pain is experienced accurately as sometimes our minds can over exaggerate pain. Mindfulness for chronic pain is also thought to help teach individuals to let go of any expectations or future worries and instead focus on the present, dealing with physical/emotional reactions in a calm manner.
Treating negative behaviours such as addiction can be complemented with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as this looks to make the individual more aware of their emotions and how to deal with them, while simultaneously breaking harmful thought patterns.
Mindful eating is a useful practice that involves individuals taking time to experience their food and all the sensations surrounding eating. This can help those with disordered eating see food in a different light, as well as helping them to recognise when they are physically hungry/full without any associative emotions.
How can you practice mindfulness?
If you are interested in introducing mindfulness to your life, the first step you should take is to simply take notice; take notice of your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and the world around you. It may be useful to pick a certain time in the day to practice this - your journey to work, when you're eating your dinner or even just before you go to bed. While it may not sound like much, taking 10 minutes a day to notice these kinds of things are great for getting you out of the auto-pilot mode many of us fall into.
You should also try looking at things from a different perspective by trying new things. This could involve something as simple as sitting somewhere new during meetings or trying a different cafe for lunch. Once again, these are small actions that could make a big impact.
Next you should try observing your own thoughts and noticing the busyness of your mind. Don't try arguing with your thoughts or even try to stop them, instead just sit back and watch them go by - as if you are watching them float by like leaves on a stream. Try to notice any feelings or emotions you feel too, (such as anxiety or sadness) to help you develop emotional awareness.
If you are struggling with mindfulness or feel you need more guidance, learning from a counsellor or psychotherapist with experience in the practice may suit you better.
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What our experts say
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Gavin Weir-Jones MA (Psy), PG Dip Mindfulness, NCS (Accred)13th February, 2018
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Gavin Weir-Jones MA (Psy), PG Dip Mindfulness, NCS (Accred)5th December, 2017
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Gavin Weir-Jones MA (Psy), PG Dip Mindfulness, NCS (Accred)11th October, 2017
- Letting go and finding freedom - A mindful monkey's tale
Gavin Weir-Jones MA (Psy), PG Dip Mindfulness, NCS (Accred)29th August, 2017