Back to basics : What is Mindfulness?
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty of mindfulness. What IS mindfulness, why is everyone talking about it, and why is it so SEXY at the moment?
Mindfulness originated in Eastern philosophy (largely in Buddhism, Taoism and Yoga) and has literally been around for thousands of years. More recently in the past 40 years or so, it has seeped its way into Western research and psychological practice due to its truckload of benefits. Mindfulness is ‘the state of being attentive to, and aware of present experiences, in a non-judgmental way’ (Kabat-Zinn). In simpler terms, it means to actively develop awareness to the present moment, and stepping back from our automatic judgements of things. It means to get in contact with the present through your senses, and being curious as to what’s really going on around and within you, and just observing the moment.
Let me give you an example you can probably relate to. I’m sure you know the term ‘autopilot’, where you go about your day doing everything that needs to get done like showering, brushing your teeth, driving to work etc. We do these things so often they become second nature and they don’t require conscious effort to get them done. So we generally switch off from the task at hand and go into our heads. The most common example is when we are driving the same road everyday, we usually switch onto autopilot, and start to plan the day, recap yesterday’s events, anticipate certain conversations and so it goes. It isn’t until we walk into work that we realise we cant remember driving there! It’s like we have blacked out and teleported to where we were going. Can you relate? We all do this, because our habitual tasks become mundane and don’t necessarily need our attention as much (although doing this while driving can be quite dangerous!).
So what are the benefits of turning that switch back over to manual in our everyday lives? Because there have been so many positive effects of practicing mindfulness, researchers have jumped on the bandwagon to find out what actually happens when you practice mindfulness, and what ARE the benefits of this ‘mindfulness thing’? There is now SO much research on both the psychological and physical effects of mindfulness, it’s hard to sift through. So let me break it down for you:
- Mindfulness was originally used in Western psychology for pain management, and has consistently been shown to help deal with and manage chronic pain, and physical conditions.
- It has absolutely HUGE effects on stress reduction and management. While it helps manage the psychological state of stress, bringing your attention to your breath and body also activates your parasympathetic system (your ‘calm the f*** down’ system!) – making it easier to relax and think with clarity.
It literally changes the structure of your brain:
- Neurological studies have shown that frequent mindfulness meditators have increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory.
- Meditators self-reported reductions in stress have also correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress (more stress reduction benefits!)
- Through a consistent practice of mindfulness meditation, studies show that the brain creates new neural pathways that allow for new behaviours and thoughts to come to the forefront, rather than old pathways of stress, worry, and negative thinking.
- Various studies have consistently shown that mindfulness practice helps manage and reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.
- More recent studies have shown that mindfulness can have huge impacts on those with trauma, as it helps individuals to be more IN their body and process trauma-related emotions.
- Mindfulness significantly reduces stress, and offers effective coping strategies for life’s everyday havoc.
- It increases self-awareness, emotion-regulating abilities, and largely increases positive emotions, gratitude and happiness.
- Mindfulness had been shown to impact positively on communication and relationships, it increases relationship satisfaction (and improves your sex life!)
So how does it actually work? And what will it do for me?
Mindful awareness gives you the tools to deal with life’s shit. We have a lot of commitments (work, friends, partners, family, children, hobbies, exercise bla bla bla), we have lots. To be honest we are not taught how to manage all of these external commitments, that constant chatterbox in our head, and not to mention our daily fluctuation of emotions! Majority of the time we are rehashing and reliving the past, or planning and worrying about the future (even if its just 10 minutes ahead of us). Through practicing mindfulness, you will give yourself some space from your never-ending thoughts, and be able to just observe both your thoughts and emotions, and be in the moment peacefully. With this small bit of space, you then have the option to CHOOSE how to respond to situations rather than act out of automatic habit. So not only will you have more engagement with yourself and your choices, everyone close to you will benefit from your superpower of being present and non-reactive.
Mindfulness can be practiced formally through meditation (and it doesn’t need to be for an hour, 10 minutes will do!). Or informally through being mindful in everyday activities (like eating that scrumptious brownie). Mindful awareness can be increased quite rapidly through practice and repetition, and you will be surprised at how fast you start to notice a difference in your own reactions. Like physical fitness and exercise, you need to keep at it with training to get the near-optimum form! So get working out, you will thank yourself when you start to notice the beautiful autumn leaves on that ‘boring’ drive to work.
image source : Electric Confetti