Mindfulness is gaining popularity as a practice in daily life. In the past few years Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington, and Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone have declared themselves devotees. General Mills, the Cheerio’s manufacturer, has a corporate mindfulness programme with 700 members. In some business communities it is so popular that it is considered a status symbol, a badge proving how busy and important your job is. However, the practice of Mindfulness is nothing new. It is an ancient meditation technique derived from Buddhism, which dates back 2,500yrs. Eastern cultures have been aware of it’s health benefits, both physical and mental, for centuries, and it has only gained popularity in the Western world in recent years. With more and more clinical research proving it’s efficacy, “Mindfulness” is the new buzz word. But what exactly is “Mindfulness”? and although it works for Buddhist monks in the tranquillity of a mountain-top Monastery, can it really make a difference in our busy modern-day lives? Quite simply, the answer is “yes”, read on to find out how and why….
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment”, which can achieved using meditational practices. The intention of basic meditation is to trick the mind into releasing itself; into giving the “thinking apparatus” a rest. In other words, to train the mind, in the same way that we would lift weights to strengthen a muscle, to be able focus on the present moment and disengage from mental clutter. This is very similar to what I use in my practice as a Psychologist using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a clinically effective model of therapy which uses Cognitive and Behavioural strategies to re-train the mind. As opposed to “zoning out”, Mindfulness mediation is like “zoning in” on whatever phenomena we consciously choose to pay attention to. It is a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment, characterised by “acceptance” – attention to thoughts and feelings without judging whether the are right or wrong. Mindfulness focuses the human brain on what is being sensed at each moment, instead of on it’s normal rumination – dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
But Does it Work?
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published the results of a ground-breaking study that found that meditation appears to provide as much relief from anxiety and depression symptoms as antidepressants. Dr. Madhav Goyal of the John Hopkins School of Medicine, who led the research published in the JAMA, singled out Mindfulness meditation as the most effective form. In 2004 it’s use in preventing the relapse of depression was approved by the UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE).
But it’s not just mental health that can benefit from Mindfulness. Mindfulness-based trainings have shown beneficial effects on inflammatory disorders in clinical studies and are endorsed by the American Heart Association as a preventative intervention. A study in Psycho-neuro-endocrinology by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain and France reported the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of intense Mindfulness practice. According to Dr. Bruce Lipton (Biologist), gene activity can change on a daily basis, if the perception in your mind is reflected in the chemistry of your body, and if your nervous system reads and interprets the environment and then controls the blood’s chemistry, then you can literally change the fate of your cells by altering your thoughts. In the simplest terms, we need to change the way we think if we are to heal ourselves, which can be achieved through Mindfulness.
Mindfulness fosters compassion and altruism: Research suggests that Mindfulness training makes us more likely to help someone in need and increases activity in neural networks involved in empathy and regulating emotions. Evidence suggests that it might boost self-compassion as well. And it’s not just adults who can be helped with Mindfulness. There is an emerging body of research that indicates Mindfulness can help children improve their abilities to pay attention, to calm down when upset and to make better decisions.
In other words, it helps with emotional regulation and cognitive focus. Teaching programmes specifically aimed at educating children on how to practice the techniques are becoming increasingly popular. In a world that is becoming dependant on external stimulation in the form of mobile devices – the average person checks their phone every 6.5mins – the next generation of kids could face some serious psycho-social challenges as their brains are permanently stimulated, affecting their ability to concentrate, form memories and relax.
The popularity of Mindfulness coincides with a spike in the incidence of depression and anxiety in the Western world. Prescriptions for antidepressants are up in the UK from 33.8 million in 2007 to 50.2 million in 2012. Job insecurity, financial pressures and attachment to technology all play their part. However, by practicing some simple exercises, and making them part of your daily routine, you can protect yourself from life’s stresses and achieve inner peace. Below is an example of a Mindfulness exercise to try at home.
The purpose of this exercise is to simply notice, accept and be aware of your breath. Sit quietly in a chair with both feet on the ground and your hands in your lap. Use a clock to time the passing of one minute. In that minute, you will bring all of your attention to the physical act of breathing. Start to notice your breath as it enters your body through your nose and travels to your lungs. Don’t try to change your breathing, just notice it. It doesn’t matter if your breathing is fast or slow, shallow or deep, it is what it is. Allow your body to do what it does naturally. You will start to notice that each time you breathe in, your diaphragm expands and as you breathe out it relaxes, just be aware of the physical sensations of breathing in and out. If you find that thoughts intrude, this is ok. It is the mind’s nature to wander. Don’t worry, just notice the thoughts, allow them to be and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
When our breathing relaxes our muscles relax, and when our muscles relax, our mind relaxes. Mindfulness is a skill, and like any skill needs regular practice to be developed successfully. Start by practicing for a minute at a time and gradually build up to 5 minutes. You will be amazed at how such a simple exercise, that when practiced regularly, can give you a sense of inner peace and clarity of mind.
About the Author
Nicola George is a fully registered, chartered Psychologist with 14yrs professional experience of working with a wide variety of mental health problems. Originally from the UK where she worked for the National Health Service (NHS), She now works privately on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, offering a warm and friendly counselling service. Nicola specialises in using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), but has a keen interest in the use of Mindfulness in treating mental disorders. For more information on Mindfulness or to book your first appointment with Nicola, visit her website; www.northernbeachespsychology.com.au