What is mindfulness?
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 practised is through mindful meditation. This usually involves our practitioners focusing on sights, sounds and physical sensations while trying to reduce 'brain chatter'. Some people struggle with meditation at first, finding it hard to focus their attention, but this is to be expected and may require practice. Practising 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)
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, mindful meditation and other mind-body exercises. The aim is to offer 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:
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
feel more balanced at work and at home
As more people undertake the practice of mindfulness, the more we are finding it can positively impact our mental health and wellbeing. Benefits also include:
a reduction in anxiety
fewer visits to the doctors
a better quality of sleep
fewer negative feelings, including tension, anger and depression
improvements in physical conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and psoriasis
Further studies into the role of mindfulness in the workplace are also showing that it could improve productivity, decrease sickness absence and generally improve workplace well-being.
Other benefits of mindfulness
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.