What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a thought process that allows us to pay attention to, and see clearly what is happening in our lives. Whilst it cannot eliminate life’s pressures, it can be a good way to help people deal with them in a calmer manner that is beneficial to overall well-being.
According to the NHS choices website, being more aware of the present moment can help us enjoy the world around us more and understand ourselves better. Mindfulness is a practical way to notice thoughts, sensations, sights, sounds and smells. The practice may be simple, but because it is so different to how our minds normally behave, it takes practice. Mindfulness might simply be described as choosing and learning to control our focus of attention. This is a very simple concept which originates from the ancient Buddhist practice, but is essentially non-religious. Mindfulness is about being in the moment, not regretting the past or worrying about the future.
The benefits of mindfulness
It can be easy to rush through life without noticing what is going on. Stressful lives often lead to living on ‘automatic pilot’. When this becomes a habitual state, it can be associated with a number of stress related health problems. Being more aware of the present moment can help people to enjoy the world around them and to develop a better understanding of themselves.
According to the NHS, studies have found that mindfulness programmes, where participants are taught mindfulness practices across a series of weeks, can bring about reductions in stress and improvements in mood. In short, everybody can benefit physically, emotionally and mentally from learning mindfulness techniques. It can contribute to greater peace of mind, better sleep and more productivity at work as well as to feeling happier or to having better relationships with others.
As you begin to practice things in a mindful way you will feel calmer and more relaxed, and will have a greater concept of your surroundings and feelings.
How to be mindful
For people who want to change their life, learning to practice mindfulness is a very effective thing to do. There are numerous courses available throughout the country. For those who do not have time to attend a course in person, there are a number of on-line courses and, for those who prefer not to take a course, there are guided mindfulness exercises available on-line. Some people also choose to combine mindfulness with exercises such as Yoga and Tai chi.
Be Mindful offers an on-line course that can help anybody to learn easily and effectively to practise mindfulness. People can opt for free introductory sessions before committing to the course. It also has a search engine that allows you to search for a mindfulness teacher/course in your local area. For further information, see the Be Mindful website.
Breathworks offer a selection of on-line courses and local courses. People who are unsure of whether this is for them can benefit from a short taster course. For further information, see the Breathworks website.
The Free Mindfulness Project
The Free Mindfulness Project website has a large range of guided meditation exercises that are free to download. These range from 3 to 35 minutes in length, and most people, no matter how busy, could find time to fit some of these exercises into their day. For further information, see The Free Mindfulness Project website.
Headspace offer guided audio meditation exercises. People can sign up for a free ten day trial before committing themselves to the full programme. For further information, see the Headspace website.
Mindfulness as a therapy
Of course, mindfulness practices are not new, and certain aspects, such as yoga and meditation, have been around for thousands of years. However, recently in western healthcare certain aspects of mindfulness have been formalised in therapies to help combat stress and depression.
Mindfulness and stress
Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure. We all need a certain amount of pressure to function well, as pressure helps people to reach their peak efficiency. Research shows that pressure can increase our drive to meet deadlines and achieve targets. However, when pressure becomes too intense and prolonged, this can lead to more serious symptoms and problems such as anxiety, depression, headaches, weight gain/loss, sleep disturbance, sweating, abdominal pain, chest pain and panic attacks.
Stress can have a profound effect on someone’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It can cause them to feel anxious, out of control and unable to cope. This can lead to feeling irritable or constantly worrying about situations and can even affect a person’s self-esteem. Acute stress might come from any area of life, including work, home, relationships, illness or finance.
According to Be Mindful, as a nation we are under greater stress than ever, and given that stress not only impacts on people’s health and well-being but can also damage social lives and relationships. With this in mind, there is a new stress therapy known as Mindfulness-Based Stressed Reduction (MBSR).
MBSR.co.uk specialises in courses and workshops on mindfulness. It offers an MBSR course that is designed to help people to learn new ways of handling difficult physical sensations, feelings and moods. People can opt for courses that run weekly or fortnightly with evening or weekend slots. For further information, see the MBSR website.
Mindfulness and depression
According to the World Health Organisation, depression is the leading cause of years lost to illness in both low, middle and high income countries. The most commonly used treatment for major depression is anti-depressant medication. However, once the episode has passed, and people stop taking the medication, the depression can return.
According to Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) website at least 50% of first time depression sufferers are likely to relapse, and sufferers who have suffered two or three episodes of depression have an 80-90% chance of re-occurrence. MBCT are a group of professionals who have been trained to teach the MBCT programme. Mindfulness can help people to learn how to recognise when their mood is beginning to go down, giving a greater opportunity for depression to be ‘nipped in the bud’ before it has gone too far. People who are suffering from depression may benefit from taking an MBCT course.
The MBCT programme
MBCT offers programmes that run for two hours per week over an eight week period, plus one all day session between weeks five and seven. Participants meet together in a class with a mindfulness teacher. There is a set of CDs to accompany the programme enabling people to continue to practise at home in between sessions. For further information, see the MBCT website.
Key differences between MBSR and MBCT
Although the two programmes are broadly similar and both promote psychological insights about our experiences and difficulties, there are some key differences which include:-
- MBCT tends to target a specific condition whereas MBSR is more generic and is applied to stress arising from a variety of life events
- MBCT puts a greater emphasis on working with and understanding the psychological and cognitive aspects of our experience.
For further information on using mindfulness as a form of therapy and more on the key differences between the two programmes, see the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice website.
This fact sheet was last reviewed on 12 February 2020.