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Modern-day life can be busy and often stressful. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is the brain and body’s response to change, challenge or demand. It is the body’s natural defence against danger and is usually brought on by an event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry or nervous. Chronic stress is associated with negative health effects. This can include your mental health, immune and digestive systems, and cardiovascular health. Studies show that practising mindfulness regularly can help with stress, anxiety and depression.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a type of meditation that helps you to be intensely aware of your senses and the feeling of being present in the moment without judgement. Mindfulness involves paying attention to what is going on inside our bodies and in our immediate environment, moment by moment.
An important aspect of mindfulness is about reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations we experience. This means being aware of what we can see, touch and the sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. An important part of mindfulness is about being aware of your thoughts and feelings in that very moment.
How does mindfulness help mental wellbeing?
Mindfulness helps to bring your attention to the present moment, non-judgementally, and promotes the idea of treating yourself with compassion and acceptance.
Practising this on a regular basis can help you:
- Reduce your stress levels.
- Cope better with your emotions.
- Promote emotional regulation.
- Improve your focus and concentration.
- Improve your sleep.
- Increase your resilience.
- Bring yourself into a calm space.
These things can all help your mental wellbeing overall. It is important to note that if you are experiencing mental health difficulties, mindfulness alone may not be enough. It is important to seek medical advice if you are struggling. Mind offer a helpful guide about how you can seek help for a mental health problem.
Benefits of mindfulness
When we become more aware of the present moment, this can help us to enjoy the world around us more and understand ourselves and other people better. When we become more aware of the present moment, we can sometimes appreciate things that we were taking for granted and find beauty in everyday experiences.
Mindfulness has been proven to have numerous benefits for both mental and physical wellbeing. This includes:
- A reduction in stress levels – practising mindfulness can lead to a greater sense of calm and resilience. Having an awareness of how we are feeling may also help us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier and deal with them better.
- Improved mental health – mindfulness has been found to be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. It can help you to be more accepting and have a compassionate attitude towards yourself. Mindfulness-based therapies are recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to treat less severe types of depression. NICE also recommends that employers should make mindfulness available to all employees, in order to support mental wellbeing in the workplace.
- Promotes a better quality of sleep – particularly if you suffer from insomnia on a regular basis.
- Improved emotional regulation – mindfulness allows people to observe their emotions as temporary experiences without immediately reacting to them. It can build emotional intelligence and regulation which can help in learning to manage difficult emotions and improve emotional wellbeing overall.
- Increased resilience – mindfulness can improve resilience by helping you to have a calmer response to stressful situations.
- Improved concentration and focus – by training your mind to stay in the present in the moment, this will help you to stay focused on tasks and therefore improve productivity.
- Improves self-awareness – mindfulness can deepen self-awareness by encouraging you to observe your thoughts, sensations and emotions without judgement. This type of self-reflection can help you gain insight into your patterns of thinking and behaviour, which can help you to make positive changes where needed.
- It can improve your relationships – mindfulness can improve communication, empathy and understanding.
- Physical health benefits – mindfulness has been linked to improved physical health symptoms including improved sleep, lower blood pressure, better functioning of the immune system, and a better ability to cope with pain.
If you are looking for ways to improve your mental wellbeing, NHS provide a helpful guide, ‘5 steps to mental wellbeing’.
What are the differences between mindfulness and meditation?
Meditation is an ancient practice that dates back thousands of years. It has benefits for brain health and overall wellbeing. Meditation involves focusing or clearing your mind using a combination of mental and physical techniques. Depending on the type of meditation you choose, you can meditate to achieve relaxation, reduce anxiety and stress or even improve your health.
There are various different ways to meditate, including:
- Body scan meditation – this involves focusing on the physical sensations you can feel throughout your body. In order to do this you can lie on your back with your legs extended and arms at your side with the palms of your hands facing up. You should focus your attention slowly on each part of your body. You should start with your toes and move to your head, or you could do head to toe if you prefer. You should make yourself aware of any sensations, emotions or thoughts associated with each part of your body.
- Sitting meditation – this could involve sitting comfortably with your back straight, your feet flat on the floor and your hands on your knees. You should breathe through your nose, focusing on your breath moving in and out of your body.
- Meditation with movement – this type of meditation can involve focusing on your breathing, holding your breath or practising specific body movements. It can also involve walking while focusing on what you observe around you. To do this you could find a quiet place and begin to walk slowly. You should focus on the experience of walking and being aware of the sensation of standing and the subtle movements you make.
- Emotion-centred meditation – this kind of meditation is where you focus on a specific emotion or feeling.
- Contemplation – this usually involves concentrating on a question without letting your mind wander.
- Mantra meditation – this type of meditation involves repeating, either out loud or in your head, while focusing on a specific phrase or sound.
- Visual-based meditation – this type of meditation involves focusing on something you can see, either with your eyes or by thinking and concentrating on a mental image.
- Mindfulness meditation – this type of meditation is about being aware of what’s happening in the moment and not letting your mind wander, especially if you are worrying about the past or future. It is a similar approach to body scan meditation, using what you feel throughout your body as a way to build awareness of the world around you.
Meditation usually has many benefits, including:
- Decreased symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns.
- Increased ability to cope with life’s stresses and adapt to and overcome emotional problems.
- Increased ability to think, concentrate and solve problems.
- Improved mental health is linked to improved physical health symptoms. This can include lower blood pressure, improved heart function, better quality sleep and improved immune system functioning.
Several research studies have found that people who meditate on a regular basis have some differences in their brain structure. The changes identified usually involve brain tissue that is denser, or certain areas of the brain that are larger than expected. This is a sign that the neurons there have more connections to each other and the connections are stronger. These are usually areas of the brain that manage or control your senses, your ability to think and to concentrate, and your ability to process your emotions. This all suggests that the brains of people who meditate on a regular basis are in fact healthier and less likely to show age-related loss of brain function. They may also have an improved ability to deal with and process difficult emotions, for example anger, grief and fear.
Meditation can help to develop mindfulness in general. Mindfulness is the quality or state of being fully present and aware in the current moment. Meditation is a structured activity that can be done in a formal sitting or lying posture, while mindfulness differs in that it can be practised informally throughout the day.
When should you practise mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a skill that can be developed after consistently practising it. It is not limited to any specific time or situation.
If you aim to practise mindfulness every day, over time it should become part of your daily routine and should feel effortless. You may want to start at a time when you are comfortable and feel relaxed and then build it into your daily life.
Although mindfulness can be practised at any time, you may want to try practising mindfulness:
- In the morning – starting your day with mindfulness can help to start your day off in a positive way. You could try incorporating it into your normal morning routines, for example when you are brushing your teeth or eating your breakfast.
- During difficult or stressful moments – practising mindfulness during these times can help you to remain calm and respond more effectively. This can stop you from reacting impulsively and can help you to pause and observe how you are feeling and how you would like to respond.
- During mealtimes – this can help you to enjoy the flavours, textures and smells of your food. This can be useful in preventing overeating and unnecessary snacking.
- During other daily activities – this can help you to slow down in your everyday activities. This sends a message to your nervous system that you are safe which can help with anxiety.
- Before going to bed – this can help you to relax and unwind and promote a better night’s sleep overall. It can also help you to process the day.
Where can you exercise mindfulness?
The more simple mindfulness exercises can be done anywhere and at any time throughout your day. Research suggests that being outdoors within nature is particularly beneficial.
If you are doing a more structured mindfulness exercise, for example sitting meditation or body scan meditation, you will need to allocate some time for this when you are in a quiet place, without any distractions or interruptions. Some people find it beneficial to do this in the morning which can provide you with a positive start to your day.
What are some mindfulness exercises?
There are some simple ways that you can practise mindfulness and incorporate it into your everyday life. These include:
- Living in the moment – try to find the joy in the simple, everyday things in life. Be intentionally open and accepting in your outlook on life.
- Accept yourself for who you are – show yourself compassion rather than feeling ashamed or being too hard on yourself. Speak to yourself the way you would speak to a close friend. Be proud of your achievements, however small they may seem.
- Pay attention – try hard to experience your environment with all of your senses. These are touch, sound, sight, smell and taste. This can include slowing down and taking the time to truly enjoy things. For example, when you eat your favourite food, take the time to smell it, slow down and savour how it tastes.
- Focus on your breathing – you could do this when you are feeling anxious or nervous, or you can just do this regularly throughout your day. When you have any negative thoughts, try to sit down, take a deep breath and close your eyes. You should focus on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Sitting and breathing for even just a few minutes can really help.
How can you be more mindful?
Reminding yourself to take notice of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and the world around you is the first step to becoming more mindful. Other ways to be more mindful are to:
- Try new things – this can involve going to new places, sitting somewhere different in a meeting at work or trying a new activity. These things can all help you to notice and appreciate the world in a different way.
- Take time to notice the everyday things – this can include noticing the sensations of things, for example the food we eat, the air moving past our body as we walk.
- Choose a regular time and try and stick to this time – this could be your morning journey to work or a walk at lunchtime, where you decide to be aware of the sensations created by the world around you.
- Notice your thoughts, particularly negative ones – being mindful is about seeing your thoughts as mental events that come and go. You do not need to make the thoughts go away but just noticing them and allowing them to move through your mind is a good habit to practise. Yoga and walking are activities that can help with an overactive mind.
- Describe or name your thoughts and feelings – some people find it helpful to describe or name the thoughts they are having. This could include things like “I feel very nervous about my exam” or “I am feeling anxious about going to the dentist”. Some people find this helpful as you are acknowledging how you are feeling rather than trying to push the thoughts away.
- Be mindful when you are worrying about the past or the future – it can be helpful to be more mindful if you find yourself trapped in thinking about the past or the future for several minutes. This can help the thoughts move through your mind rather than you getting stuck there for prolonged periods of time.
- Prioritise time for mindfulness – as well as being more mindful in everyday life, it is useful to practise mindfulness and set aside specific time for this. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting quietly and paying attention to the thoughts, sounds around you, the sensation of your breath or different parts of your body, and bringing your attention back whenever your mind begins to wander.
Yoga and tai chi can also help with developing awareness of your breathing. Yoga is a practice that expands our consciousness to help us connect with nature and the universe around us. It also gives us greater access to inner resources that teach us about self-awareness, acceptance, compassion, patience, gratitude and peace. Tai chi is a gentle form of exercise that can help maintain strength, flexibility and balance. It has been linked to the treatment and prevention of many health problems. If you are interested in mindfulness, yoga and tai chi might also be of interest to you as they can provide similar benefits.