A few months ago I attended a fantastic talk by Ruby Wax where she mentioned how she’d learned to manage her depression using something called “mindfulness”. Since then, I’ve become increasingly interested in the far reaching benefits it can have, not only on physical health, but also mental health.
What is Mindfulness?
Although it has its roots in Buddhism, mindfulness became popular in the west in the 1970’s, through the work of John Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, as a therapeutic tool to manage stress and anxiety.
People often confuse mindfulness with meditation, but it’s more than that. It’s about cultivating a present state of mind through developing an ongoing awareness and acceptance of our thoughts and feelings moment by moment.
By simply monitoring what’s going on inside our heads, we can start to notice the patterns of negative thinking associated with mental health problems, and over time change our relationship to them.
How Mindfulness Helps Mental Wellbeing
The mind is a natural problem solver, but trying to think your way out of a problem is like being trapped in quicksand: the more you struggle to get out, the deeper you sink.
For some people, as soon as they stop what they’re doing, thoughts and worries come crashing in. The aim of mindfulness is not to make these thoughts go away, but rather to lessen the focus on them.
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”
In the 1990’s, psychologists Jon Teasdale and Philip Barnard found that there are 2 main modes of mind, the “Doing” mode and the “Being” mode. The “Doing” mode is goal oriented, triggered when the mind perceives a difference between how things are and where it wants to be. This leads to rumination – a constant cycle of thinking, obsessed with where we are in relation to our higher purpose – which causes stress and anxiety.
The “Being” mode isn’t focused on specific goals, but rather accepting and allowing what is. By training the mind to focus on “Being”, we interrupt the cycle of “Doing” and foster lasting emotional change.
How To Be More Mindful
For me, mindfulness is analogous to going to the gym for your mind. Every time you successfully anchor your awareness back to the present, it’s like doing a rep for your brain.
Some people find it useful to name the thoughts and feelings they are having. Each time a certain type of thought comes up, simply acknowledge it without judgement and move on. Monitor thoughts like they are on a conveyor belt passing through the mind. “This is the thought that I’m not good enough”. “This is the thought that I will fail my exam” etc.
Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti believes that we can take this even further, proclaiming that we should “make the observer the observed”. By zooming out and watching ourselves having these thoughts, we can find it easier to detach from them.
Ultimately, the key to developing mindfulness is remembering to take your mind off autopilot as often as possible. A good way to make this a habit is every time you walk through a doorway, pause for a second to take in your surroundings and focus on the breath.
The following exercises can also help you incorporate mindfulness into your daily life:
- Mindful eating exercise – Next time you’re preparing a snack, for example an apple, chop it up into bite-sized pieces and roll them around your hand for a minute. Feel what it feels like. Notice the size, shape, texture etc. Now put it in your mouth but don’t chew. You will notice that your mouth begins to salivate. As you begin to chew, become aware of how it tastes in different parts of your mouth. Now start to swallow, bringing your awareness to the sensation of it going down your throat and into your stomach.
- Box breathing – Used in the military to help calm nerves before going into battle. Inhale through the nose for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale through the mouth for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. Repeat this for 10 minutes, maintaining awareness on the breath as it enters your nostrils and exits your mouth. If your mind begins to wander, anchor your awareness back to the breath and continue to count quietly to yourself.
- Body scan – Sit cross-legged on the floor with your spine up straight but not stiff. Now close your eyes and send your focus to your toes (perhaps each toe individually). Investigate the sensations. Are they tingling? Pulsing? Numb? When you are ready, move on to other parts of your body such as the hands, the thighs, elbows etc. Continue to investigate the sensations that come up. Over time, this will sharpen your ability to notice the difference between thinking about a part of the body and actually experiencing it.
If you would like to know more, I recommend reading the following books:
- Frazzled – Ruby Wax
- The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle
- The Mindful Way Through Depression – Mark Williams
Action for Happiness also has a fantastic Mindfulness Podcast series that you can listen to here.