What is mindfulness?
You may have heard about it but just what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is focusing awareness on the present moment, accepting thoughts, feelings and physical sensations without judgement. Practising mindful techniques helps us become calmer, responding to life’s pressures in a more accepting way. This leads to us accepting that we can’t change certain things but we can change the way we think about or react to them.
You've experienced mindful moments without realising; when engrossed in a good book, playing a game with your kids or making a cake. You’ve channelled your energy into these tasks and focused on them with your awareness in that moment. That’s the essence of mindfulness.
What is mindfulness in daily life? It doesn’t mean hours of meditation or sitting in the lotus position. It can be as simple as taking a four or five deep breaths outside the school gates and being present in that moment.
The single most significant development in mental health practice since the turn of the millennium has been the widespread emergence of mindfulness-based approaches - Psychology Today
How does mindfulness work?
Our minds are wired to constantly think. Thoughts of the past or planning the future. It's easy to become distracted and forget where we are or what we're doing right now. Often we're on autopilot which guides us through familiar tasks without using up much brain power. Think of a car journey you do most days. Have you ever got to your destination and wondered how you got there without thinking?
Our mind also tells us stories. We think about certain things over and over. Our mind weaves the thoughts into an elaborate tale, exaggerating feelings and making anxiety worse than it needs to be. This is called catastrophizing or awfulising by psychologists.
Mindfulness reduces your mind's chatter and trains us to accept thoughts as they are without exaggerating them. By seeing thoughts as just ‘thoughts’ then focusing on what you’re doing right now, you redirect attention and pull the plug on negative thought streams. Practising mindfulness helps us live less in our heads and more in the here and now. This shift in awareness alters our relationship with thinking; it stops the cycle of rumination that can often spiral and make us feel terrible.
How did mindfulness start? Is it a religion?
No, it’s not a religion though it has roots in Buddhism dating back thousands of years. Modern mindfulness came about in the late 1970s due to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a clinician and researcher in the mind/body field. He developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction programme (MBSR) based on insight meditation techniques. This gave a secular format to the Buddhist philosophy. MBSR was used to help patients with chronic pain and featured elements of meditation and spiritualism. The practice is still used today to help people overcome pain, stress and anxiety and to teach techniques to cope with modern life.
Mindfulness has been scientifically researched and tested and is used by health practitioners for many things from reducing stress to managing depression and addiction. Mindful techniques are included in modern mental health therapies, and are used across the world in the workplace, hospitals, educational settings and health services. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), designed in 2002, manages and eases depression and follows a cognitive scientific framework.
Does mindfulness work?
Many clinical trials have proven MBCT to be as effective as anti-depressants, with multiple episodes of depression being reduced by up to 50% compared with traditional therapeutic methods.
MBCT is approved by NICE (the UK's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence), meaning it’s available on the NHS. According to Psychology Today, a mindful approach is associated with greater psychological health.