Mindfulness – What’s it all about?
Mindfulness seems to be the new buzzword these days. “5 ways to live in the now” “7 ways to be present” “Are you living in the moment?” “4 ways to be mindful at work” You can’t avoid the explosion of articles extoling the virtues of mindfulness and telling you it is the key to happiness, well-being and an altogether more fulfilling life. It is being hailed as a cure for all sorts of problems such as addiction, anxiety, depression and chronic pain to name but a few. The problem is, mindfulness is becoming so “fashionable” in the media it’s in danger of being seen as another fad or quick-fix self-help cliché, which would be a terrible shame as the effects of mindfulness are actually quite profound.
So what exactly is mindfulness and how does it work?
A lot of people confuse mindfulness with meditation and although both can acheive similar benefical effects, the two are actually different. You can actually do a form of meditation called “mindful meditation” but essentially, meditation is about setting aside time for intentional practice of quieting the mind. It is done in silence and involves focusing on a specific thing, such as the breath, an object or a concept, for exmple, compassion or forgiveness.
Mindfulness in the true sense of the word is simply about awareness or paying full attention to what is going on in any given present moment. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn – the scientist who first popularized the concept of mindfulness in western society – mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally” Mindfulness involves focusing exclusively on what is happening in the present moment – either in the external world or our own internal world of thoughts and feelings. It is about really observing life as it actually is, not what we imagine it to be. Think about the last time you were sitting in traffic or on the train on the way to work. Where are your thoughts? Thinking ahead to what you need to get done that day or thinking about what happened before you left the house? How about the last time you had dinner or coffee with a friend? Were you really paying attention to what they were saying, or how they might have been feeling? or were you making up stories in your head about what they were thinking or how they might be judging you? Did you really savour the smell and taste of the food you were eating? Or were you thinking about something that had happened a couple of hours earlier?
We spend so much of our lives thinking about the past, thinking about the future, worrying about what others are thinking about us, and reacting automatically to events, that we don’t actually experience or feel many of our experiences. The cumulative result of all this mindlessness is a feeling that we are not actually in our lives or chronic feelings of emptiness and disconnection.
Mindfulness is about slowing down and bringing our attention to the present, and actually experiencing our life as it unfolds. It means noticing our thoughts and our feelings, noticing our reactions to events, noticing the sounds, smells, and sights going on around us, without judging them as necessarily good or bad.
So how can this help us increase our psychological well-being and overcome debilitating conditions such as addiction, anxiety and depression?
Mindfulness raises awareness of what is driving our problems.
A great deal of psychological distress comes from the thoughts and perceptions that that we have about ourselves, others and the world. We have about 60 thousand thoughts a day and if the majority of them are self-critical, judgmental or fearful, we will generate a great deal of emotional distress for ourselves. If you are constantly putting yourself down you are likely to suffer from low self-esteem and depression. If you are constantly imagining worst case scenarios, you will be riddled with anxiety. The thoughts we might tell ourselves about substance use can continue to drive addictive behavior I.e. “life is boring without alcohol”, “I won’t be able to cope without my anxiety medication”. We become so fused with the thoughts we have, that we don’t realise the majority of them are simply not true. Paying attention to the thoughts and stories that you tell yourself can give insight into why you suffer from the things that you do.
Mindfulness can reduce emotional distress
We have become a nation of people that find it very hard to tolerate discomfort. We do anything we can to avoid feeling anxiety, sadness, shame, insecurity, uncertainty – basically any feeling that makes us feel vulnerable. Many of our reactions and behaviours are driven by underlying feelings that we don’t want to feel. This is especially true of substance abuse, anxiety and eating disorders. We self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, we soothe ourselves by over-eating, we take prescription medications, we keep busy and distract ourselves – we literally do anything to avoid the experience of being human. Emotions and feelings need to be fully felt before they can be released. Paying attention to what we are feeling in a mindful way enables the feeling to be released. Many people find that the feelings they are constantly trying to avoid are actually not that bad. This is especially true of craving for addictive substances. Cravings pass within a couple of minutes if you can stay with them and fully ride them out. Unless we allow ALL our feelings, the good and the bad, we will never experience true happiness and contentment. You can’t cherry pick your emotions – you can’t say I want happiness, enthusiasm and joy, but I don’t want sadness, fear or loneliness. The very mechanisms we use to numb and suppress the so called “negative emotions” also numb and suppress the positive ones.
Mindfulness reduces stress
The very act of slowing down and paying attention to breathing – the essence of mindfulness – reduces activation of the fight or flight stress response. Cortisol, the stress hormone, has a wide reaching impact on many of the body’s regulatory systems. If we are rushing around, anxious or stressed, cortisol is constantly being pumped through our system, damaging our immune system, cardio-vascular system and digestive system. High levels of cortisol also cause damage to structures in the brain that are responsible for managing emotions, curbing impulsivity and producing feel good hormones such as dopamine and serotonin. So the more stress we experience, the less ability we have to over-ride the stress and the fewer feel good chemicals we produce in the brain. This in itself can make us more susceptible to depression, known to be linked to deficiencies in serotonin and also abuse of substances, which artificially generate dopamine and serotonin.
Regular mindful breathing can restore cortisol to normal levels and bring the body back to a state of calm, making us less vulnerable to physical ailments, addiction, anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness can re-wire the brain
Regular mindful practice and meditation has been found to increase the neural connections between the emotional brain and the logical rational part of the brain. People who suffer from emotional outbursts or who get caught up or de-railed by their own emotions are likely to have fewer connections between the emotional brain and the part of the logical brain (pre-frontal cortex) that can over-ride intense emotions. The very action of focusing attention on our thoughts and feelings regularly, increases not only the connections between the emotional and logical brain but also increases the strength of the pre-frontal cortex, thereby reducing emotional reactivity and impulsitivit associated with addictive behaviour.
Mindfulness can improve relationships.
Many conflicts in relationships arise from our own reactivity to our emotional states and getting lost in the stories that we tell ourselves about what is happening. We often blame other people for the problems we experience, or project our experiences on to other people. Sometimes we will assume that we know what another person is thinking and respond accordingly, or we might not state our needs directly then get angry when they are not met. We might also feel deep feelings of insecurity about ourselves and our relationships which gets projected as anger, abuse and controlling behavior. Mindfulness allows us to take a step back and observe the dynamics of our relationships in a curious non-judgmental manner, and from that place, move forward to make them more fulfilling.
Mindfulness is not just another fad, it is a way of profoundly changing our relationship to the world and ourselves. It’s about bringing an openness and curiosity to all that we experience, slowing down and allowing life to truly touch us. For more information on how to practise mindfulness click here