What is mindfulness and how does it work?
We often live in the future - planning what to make for dinner, consumed by financial constraints, playing out conversations in our heads, and worrying about ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ - which often never come about.
Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment. What can you see, smell, touch, taste, and hear in your immediate environment? It’s one of the most popular forms of meditation. It’s an easily accessible way to start your meditation journey. Paying attention to the here and now helps you enjoy life more while enabling you to understand yourself better. The founder of the mindfulness-based stress reduction technique, Prof. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding experience in the moment.”
We recommend starting small. Spend a few minutes trying to be mindful every day. Simply slow down for five or so minutes, and if you find this easy, then you can build up from there.
So what are some of the benefits you can gain from mindfulness?:
Improves your attention span
Mindfulness meditation has specifically been found to improve the attention span of those who tap into the practice. A study uncovered that mindfulness meditation enabled participants to efficiently allocate their mental resources, especially when required to execute tasks that were mentally straining and demanded a lot of attention. Those participants executed tasks more efficiently because meditation made them more alert to what they were doing.
Other research on meditation concludes that outside of the short term benefits, the practice of mindfulness can greatly improve one’s attention span when it is utilised consistently in the long term. Even though mindfulness meditation has been utilised for 1000 years, it is now regarded as a tool that has become important for a generation of people who are said to have the lowest attention span in history due to increased mental health disorders like stress, depression, anxiety, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and overexposure to screens. So it’s worth a try, even in the short term (1).
Reduces both chronic and acute stress
Many of us are very stressed out due to daily challenges in our personal and work life. So it’s essential to find stress-reducing strategies that are effective, accessible and inexpensive but don’t take up a lot of our limited time. Meditation is one such technique.
But what is the difference between chronic and acute stress anyway? Chronic aka repeated psychological stress has been associated with abnormalities in stress hormones and inflammatory markers (1). Chronic stress is more long-term and can trigger other health problems like increased heart rate, muscle tension, and high blood pressure. This kind of repeated stress response can change how the body functions because your system is forced to work under added pressure to do everyday things over a long period of time. Recovery is harder with chronic stress because your body is already overwhelmed, but it can be treated with different approaches like a lifestyle change (including mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga) and seeking professional help.
Meanwhile, acute stress is triggered by short-term events like traffic jams, work deadlines, taking a test, or disagreements with a spouse. Acute stress is more episodic in nature and is easier to overcome and move past. This kind of stress also doesn’t impact the body as much in the long term in terms of triggering physical ailments. But it’s important to keep in mind that repeated occurrences of acute stress can eventually take a toll on the body - when small stressful events occur continuously over an extended period of time this can eventually result in chronic stress (1). This happens because your body’s stress response is triggered more often than it can manage, eventually leading to long-term stress if not brought under control.
If you're dealing with either type of stress, try improving your coping skills with meditation, yoga, or even a simple relaxation technique like deep breathing. If you can set aside a certain amount of time each day (start small) for one or more of these activities, you'll find that you'll get better and better at handling stress. Mediation is a very important coping mechanism when dealing with stress because it is said to increase your “neuroplasticity” (your brain’s ability to adapt to stressful situations). When you meditate, you may also clear away the information overload that builds up every day and subsequently contributes to your stress levels. So it’s important not to wait for it to build up to unmanageable levels. Prevention is better than cure!
Reduce activity in the areas of your brain which control anxiety and depression
Mindfulness is also good for managing your emotional wellbeing when it comes to reducing the impact of mental challenges like anxiety and depression. It forces you to be present, reducing negative emotions while increasing self-awareness. A recent study found that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation helped reduce anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder, along with increasing positive self-statements and improving stress reactivity and coping.
Meditation forces you to live in the moment. It is especially important because people who live with anxiety and depression tend to focus a lot of their energy on past encounters and on the uncertain future. They tend to absorb a lot of negative emotion, making it hard to see all the good around them. But through mindfulness, you are able to be in the here and now instead of an over-investment in all the things that have gone wrong and could possibly go wrong. It’s a reminder to breathe when you’re feeling overwhelmed and to find comfort in the knowledge that whatever may be happening can be overcome.
Taking up mindfulness meditation can also be helpful for people in this group because it can lead to improved self-image and a more positive outlook on life. Self-awareness empowers you to recognise the good parts of yourself and potentially helps you not to dwell on nor feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts when they occur (1. 2). It gives you the skills to cope with stressful situations and gain a more realistic view of yourself and those around you. Thus enabling you to gain more perspective so you can be more accepting of yourself, especially for those with a dissociated view of themselves - allowing you to realise that maybe things are not as bad as the anxiety leads you to believe. This can eventually lead to reduced symptoms of both anxiety and depression in the long term, according to some studies (1.2).
It can improve your quality of sleep
According to recent statistics, 36% of UK adults struggle to get to sleep on a weekly basis and nearly half of the UK population have identified as having “trouble falling asleep at least once a month”. This can be concerning because good quality sleep has been identified as one of the most essential parts of our well-being. Sleeping well means we are rested enough to carry on with our daily activities. Meanwhile, being deprived of good rest can stand in the way of us eating healthy, being productive at work, and even reducing our likelihood of wanting to work out following a sleepless night.
Sleep is the chord that enables us to feel motivated and energised enough to make healthier choices. So we suggest mindfulness meditation to help you sleep better at night so other aspects are not affected. A study found that practising meditation improved the severity of insomnia in suffers while enabling other people to stay asleep longer with improved quality of sleep. So mindfulness can unlock a new world of possibilities after a good night’s sleep.
How to begin practising mindfulness?
Once you master the technique, you can practice mindfulness in a number of areas of your life, such as mindful eating, driving, or to help you fall asleep. If you’re a beginner, you can follow the following simple steps to help you get started:
- Sit in a comfortable chair, with your hands resting on your thighs. Position yourself so you can feel the support of the chair, spacing your feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Close your eyes, and take ten slow breaths. As you breathe, notice the rise and fall of your stomach. Don’t worry if your mind wanders, simply bring your attention back to your breathing.
- Don’t deliberately control your breathing. Let your natural rhythm take over and pay attention to how this feels. The process of bringing your attention back to your breathing when your mind wanders, helps you build neuroplasticity.
- This means you’re training the neural pathways in your brain to support your emotional resilience in the future.
- Don’t panic if your mind leaps to distracting thoughts. Take note of these thoughts and see if you can gently guide your thought process back to the sensation of breathing. After four or five minutes, slowly open your eyes and have a gentle stretch.
We hope practising mindfulness can unlock a new, healthier, and happier you who lives in the moment.