Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK (11-17th May) and for 2015 the theme was ‘mindfulness’. People familiar with meditation and yoga may already know about mindfulness, especially as there has been quite a surge in interest in mindfulness in the media, in politics, in business etc in the last few years, including a mini backlash against it.
However, it can still be a wooly concept to grasp, and it may not be immediately obviously how paying close attention to something can help with mental health issues such as stress, depression or anxiety. So what is mindfulness and how can it help with mental well-being?
Here’s one really simple definition: “Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, moment by moment, without judging.” (By Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living.)
But how does this relate to daily life? Well, you could sit and observe the sounds around you for a minute, just noticing what you hear, but without judging them as ‘annoying sounds’ or ‘loud sounds’ etc. They’re just sounds. As you do this you’ll notice how many other thoughts sneak in, distracting you from the sounds. These have a tendency to be thought patterns that are not so helpful and which prevent us focusing on the current moment.
But how is focusing on the present moment going to help someone who is depressed and stressed? Well, it works on many levels. If we are able to quietly focus on one thing, and observe any thoughts that come into our minds without getting attached or caught up in them, we are able to realise that we are not our thoughts, and do not need to be ruled by them. If we are suffering from anxiety or negativity etc, recognising and then pausing or moving away from unhelpful thought patterns to ones which are more compassionate or grounded in the present moment, can help our mental well-being. We also begin to be aware that each moment passes, all things pass or change, and so clinging onto the past, or worrying about the future, or running old arguments through our head, is really a waste of energy.
Neuroscience research is also revealing that the brain can be trained, like any muscle in the body. The positive effects from training the mind include increased compassion, generosity and patience, improved self-regulation, productivity, focus and clarity as well as an overall reduction in stress. It can change brain wave patterns to ones that are more conducive to being relaxed. We learn to unlearn old habits and patterns that no longer serve us or anyone else.
Mindfulness trains us to bring our minds back to the present moment instead of dwelling on the past or future. By paying attention to the present moment we become aware of thoughts, emotions and feelings. We don’t have to get caught up in these, especially if they are harmful to our general health and well-being.
To find out more about mindfulness you can read up on it on the Mental Health Foundation website, the Clear Mind Institute, and the Mind website. There is also a really good podcast (audio talk) on what it is, and with free guided meditations on specific topics, on the MHF Soundcloud page, and free c.five minute guided mindfulness meditations from the Clear Mind Institute, either their 365 days of happiness or 25 days of peace. Or you may want to sign up for an online or in-person course on mindfulness e.g. with Breathworks.
Here in Wales the Welsh Government has a mental health strategy, and some great schemes including Book Prescription Wales where you can be prescribed an appropriate book from a health professional and get it from your local library.
My de-stress handout has four practices that you can try as in introduction to mindfulness.
But to close, remember you don’t have to be suffering from any mental ill-health in order to be inspired to practise mindfulness – it’s an excellent preventative practice that can keep you well, resilient and focused.