Learning to be more present and live less in our heads can boost health and wellbeing. Get the low down on mindfulness.
Often we’re so caught up with the noise in our head – our thoughts, worries, hopes, fears and plans – that we miss the experience of being present. We lose touch with what’s around us and what we’re doing and feeling. And when we’re running on automatic pilot, we can go down old habits of thinking that are unhelpful and send us down. Studies show that stepping back from our busy brain and purposely experiencing our life as it is now – rather than as it was, or how we wish it to be – makes us feel happier and more fulfilled. It lessens distressing thoughts and feelings, increases our functioning and coping powers and improves our relations with other people.
Living more mindfully
The way to do this is mindfulness, a mind-body practice inspired by centuries old Buddhist meditation. Mindfulness is increasingly recognised as a way for people to improve their lives and their relationships. It’s also an accepted treatment for the prevention and management of certain psychological conditions. Studies show that mindfulness lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves respiration and enhances brain function. It also changes the brain’s grey matter and reactivity to emotional stimuli in ways that promote greater conscious control over emotion. There is growing evidence that mindfulness can help prevent stress, anxiety and recurrent depression. Its use is also being explored for a range of other problems, including chronic pain, insomnia and some chronic long-term conditions such as ME.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness involves purposely bringing your attention to the moment you’re in, without trying to suppress, judge, change or fix anything. To simply be with what’s there. Paying close attention to things moment by moment, and accepting them just as they are, allows you to treat thoughts and feelings in the same way. Thoughts come into your head, but you simply acknowledge them without getting caught up in them, then gently bring your mind back to the present again. The idea is that, once you get used to it, mindfulness helps you accept even the most disturbing sensations, feelings, thoughts and experiences. You learn to see them as passing events, rather than facts, something to be argued with or somehow representing ‘you’. And because it’s about taking a non-judgemental approach, mindfulness can make you kinder and more accepting of yourself and other people.
The happiness factor
Living more mindfully can also enhance our lives in other ways. It increases our appreciation of the moment we are in. So when we’re eating we make a conscious effort to savour each mouthful, instead of being so preoccupied with our to-do list we bolt our food. Or we might stop to appreciate the beauty of the day instead of being so lost in thought we don’t notice what’s around us. Coming off autopilot also increases our engagement with what we’re doing and feeling, making it easier to direct our actions where we want them to go. It’s good for concentration and problem solving. And it’s good news for our relationships too; instead of only listening with half an ear, we learn to be there more fully with the people in our life.
The right medicine
It’s easy to see how mindfulness can improve our daily experience. But how does it help guard against problems like anxiety and depression? It’s thought that mindfulness works in part by helping people accept their experiences – including painful emotions – rather than reacting to them with aversion and avoidance, which only makes problems worse. It also lets us take a more realistic view of things. When thoughts are left unchecked, it’s easy for negative thoughts to dominate so they override the positive and supportive kind. Mindfulness lets us stand back and observe our thoughts without getting caught in them, which stops negative thoughts from spiralling and helps guard against problems like anxiety and depression. Increasingly mindfulness is being combined with psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy, to help people manage the negative thought patterns that can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and burnout.
Living more mindfully
Mindfulness can be practised in the form of specific exercises, or as mindfulness of daily living. But it needs to be practised regularly to feel the benefits. It can take a bit of getting used to because it’s so different to how our minds normally behave. But once you’re in the swing of it, it’s easy to build into your everyday life. Mindfulness puts us in back in touch with ourselves and the world around us, so we can experience more fully the life we are living. And by helping us avoid the same old mental ruts that may have caused problems in the past, it can free us up to live our lives in the way that we’d like. It’s also true that in our busy, multi-tasking world, mindfulness feels increasingly relevant. You might even call it the antidote to modern living.
The benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness can help you:
- Appreciate more fully the life you are living.
- Be more present instead of worrying over what’s been, or what might or might never be.
- Come out of autopilot and avoid falling into old habits of thinking that can bring your mood down.
- Stand back from negative thoughts so you see things more realistically.
- Put you in touch with what you’re doing and feeling so you can direct your actions to where you want them to go.
- Acknowledge and let go of pent up emotions.
- Be kinder and more accepting of yourself and others.
- Be there more fully with the people in your life.
- Mindfulness: a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman (Piatkus Books 2011).
- The Mindful way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, Jon Kabat-Zinn (Guilford Publications 2007) (link to Book Review).
- The Power of Now: a Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle (Hodder and Stoughton 2001).
- The Inner Game of Stress: outsmart life’s challenges and fulfil your potential by Timothy Gallwey, Edd Hanzelik and John Horton (Random House Publishing Group 2009)
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