What is Mindfulness and how can it help your physical and mental wellbeing?
Mindfulness is a term that has been banded about a lot recently but what is it exactly and how can you use it to improve your mental health and wellbeing?
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment – to what is happening around you and in your head right now. Despite sounding simple, being fully in the present is difficult for many of us because we are preoccupied with the past or worried about the future. For example, we could be cooking dinner worrying about a big meeting the next day. It’s very easy for our minds to drift without us even realising it.
So, mindfulness is being aware of where you are and what you are doing right now and is something any of us can do.
How can mindfulness help mental health?
Many mental health conditions are closely related to being too tied up to our thoughts. Anxiety is related to being caught up in worrying thoughts about the future. Likewise, depression is often characterised by dwelling on the past. When we are struggling with our mental health, we are caught up in our own heads and our thoughts and loose track of the world around us. We don’t always see how these thoughts affect our emotions and behaviour. So a key part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our senses and how we are experiencing the world – the sights, sounds and feel.
It is a good way to practise self-compassion while being aware of what thoughts might be troubling you at the moment, without being caught up in those thoughts. This helps us notice signs of stress or troubling thoughts earlier and deal with them better. Studies have shown that regularly practising mindfulness has significant benefits for our health, happiness and relationships, and it’s free!
There are lots of ways you can practise mindfulness and most people find one or two techniques easy than others. Some people enjoy guided meditation sessions and there are some great phone apps like Headspace and Calm that can help. Others find more active mindful activities beneficial like yoga or tai chi, where you are focussed on body sensations. I personally enjoy a mindful walk alone with some calm music before a busy day. Here are a couple of quick mindful activities you can fit into your day.
54321 technique: This is a great grounded exercise if you are feeling anxious. Find a comfortable place to sit and take a few slow, deep breaths. Look around you and find 5 things you can see (i.e. a door, a wall, the sky, etc). Then, four things you can feel (i.e. the chair below you, the floor, a breeze, etc). Then, as you continue slow breathing, listen and name three things you can hear. Then, take your time to notice two things you can smell. If you can’t smell anything, name two smells you most enjoy (i.e. cut grass, cinnamon). Finally, name one thing you can taste. If you can’t taste anything currently, again name something you like to taste. This will help ground you back in the present and stop your thoughts racing.
Body Scan: This is a great technique to use laying down in bed before sleep. Closing your eyes can be helpful to allow you to focus but isn’t essential.
- Bring awareness to your breathing and try to slow and deepen each breath. Notice the feeling of pressure where your body touches the surface below you.
- When you’re ready (don’t rush), intentionally breathe in, and move your attention to your feet and ankles and notice any sensation there (which might include buzzing, or tingling, pressure, tightness, temperature, etc). If you don’t feel any body sensations there, just notice that and tune into what you presently feel without any judgement.
- Intentionally release that focus and move your attention up to your knees and then travel up your body noticing sensations at each point. Do your calves feel tight? Can you sense the chair or bed under you and how does that feel?
- At each point you are curious, open and non-judgmental.
- If you find your mind wandering (and you will!), gently bring back your attention and carry on the exercise.
- At the end of this exploration of bodily sensations (once you’ve reached the top of your head), spend a few moments continuing to breathe deeply and slowly – expanding your attention to feeling your entire body.
- Finally, open your eyes if they have been closed and enjoy the feeling of calm you’ve created.
Important things to note
Is mindfulness suitable for everyone?
Clinical Psychologists believe that mindfulness isn’t helpful for certain groups of people. In particular, for people in the midst of a drug and/or alcohol dependency or those recently bereaved. Also, although it is seen to be a great general mental health tool, mindfulness doesn’t work for everyone, in the same way that medication doesn’t work the same for everyone. But it is easy to try and doesn’t cost anything.
Be kind to yourself
It is natural to find your thoughts wandering away from the present moment. Don’t stress or beat yourself up about this – just notice this and gently bring your thoughts back to the present. You might find you have to do this several times but with practise it will be easier to focus on the present with a quiet, calm mind without it wandering frequently. Each time you bring your thoughts back gently, your brain is making new pathways to help make mindfulness easier in the future.
You can fit it into your everyday life
We are all busy people with limited time and few of us have a spare hour every day for meditation. However, mindfulness can be brought into our everyday lives in simple ways. For example, if you are cooking dinner and worrying about that meeting tomorrow – bring your attention back to the pot and spend a few minutes noticing the feel of stirring the pot, the smells, etc.
Is mindfulness a quick fix for all my problems?
No. Time and commitment are needed to see the benefits of this practise and those who see the most benefit from mindfulness make it a part of their everyday lives. It may take some practise but it is freely available and has significant proven benefits for your physical and mental health and happiness.
More information on mindfulness
“Mindfulness is a way of befriending ourselves and our experience”