Mindfulness has gone from buzzword to a therapy increasingly prescribed by doctors. So what exactly is it – and who and how can it help?
- Increasing your awareness of what’s going on inside and outside yourself in a particular moment.
- Stopping to really notice what you’re thinking and feeling, considering what events sparked these thoughts and feelings, and how they might change your behaviour.
- Paying attention to all the physical and emotional sensations you’re experiencing.
How can mindfulness help, and who will benefit from it?
Today, many of us lead very busy lives and rush through our days, reacting ‘off the cuff’ to things and often missing opportunities to take a breath and appreciate what’s around us.
Mindfulness means taking a step back to examine what’s going on rather than just reacting, and separating yourself, even if just momentarily, from past regrets and future worries by focusing on the present. It can help you gain a greater awareness of the drivers of your behaviours and anxieties, and so help you get better control of them.
“It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives,” says Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.
Mindfulness can help you appreciate things that you previously took for granted, like the taste of your favourite sandwich or the birdsong as you leave for work. And by becoming more aware of your thoughts and feelings, you can begin to see patterns and recognise those that aren’t helpful, and recognise signs of stress and anxiety earlier.
By recognising negative thought patterns, we can help ourselves learn to not let them overwhelm us or lead us into a spiral of negative, dominating thoughts or negative actions that make the situation worse (one of the main principles of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)).
Mindfulness is something we can all benefit from. However, from a medical point of view, mindfulness is now officially recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent depression in people who have had three or more bouts of depression in the past.
It’s also increasingly recommended by doctors for those suffering chronic conditions or pain (which can be the cause of ongoing stress), and for those suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. There’s emerging evidence that it can help with insomnia, too.
So how do you practise mindfulness?
You can practise it anytime, anywhere, but it seems to work best if you make the effort to do it regularly, and try to choose a time each day to practise it, in addition to occasions when you practise it ‘on the go’. It could be: on the way to or from work; at lunchtime; first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Experiment to find the time most convenient and useful for you.
Reminding yourself to take notice of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and the world around you is the first step to mindfulness.
The NHS recommends:
Noticing the everyday: focusing on the details of what’s going on around you.
Trying something new: sitting in a different seat in meetings or on the bus, or going somewhere new for lunch, can also help you notice the world in a new way.
Watching and naming your thoughts and feelings: trying to view them dispassionately.
“It might be useful to remember that mindfulness isn’t about making these thoughts go away, but rather about seeing them as mental events,” says Dr Williams.
“Imagine standing at a bus station and seeing ‘thought buses’ coming and going without having to get on them and be taken away. This can be very hard at first, but with gentle persistence it is possible.”
Identify them as they come and label them. “I’m worried about my Dad’s health.” “This is stress; I’ve got a busy week and I’m worried I won’t fit everything in.” “I’m anxious about my exam.”
You’ve probably heard the adage that often our fear of something is worse than the thing itself. By being aware of your fears and concerns, you may be able to recognise when you’re letting them grow disproportionately to the problem on which they’re based.
Freeing yourself from the past and future
An important facet of mindfulness is the realisation that worries about the past or the future can dominate your thoughts and blight your present, stopping you from enjoying the time you have now. If you realise that you’ve been reliving negative past experiences or are caught up in worries about the future for several minutes, try taking a few moments to focus yourself back in the now, and appreciate the day, hour and minute you’re in.
Taking time out: ideally having more formal, longer mindfulness sessions, where you focus on your breathing and your body, bringing your attention back whenever your mind wanders.