More and more mindfulness is considered by health scientists to be a health “no brainer” like brushing your teeth and exercising. Mindfulness has been shown to improve a range of health and wellbeing markers ,from being better able to regulate your mood to reducing actual levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the blood.
So, what is mindfulness? Happify.com have a great animated video which is all of 2:43 minutes defining mindfulness as:
“The ability to know what’s happening in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it.”
When you are mindful, you have a buffer between a stimulus (like being cut off in traffic) and reaction (chasing that car screaming, or not). You have awareness of the physical reactions, thoughts and feelings that automatically pop up when something difficult happens, and can make a choice about how you act.
How often have you completely “lost it” in an argument with a loved one?
And after you calmed down you were more rational?
Or felt completely overwhelmed by a task but once you got started it was ok?
If you were being mindful of the thoughts, feelings and physical reactions in the moment you could choose whether or not those responses are reasonable and how you want to proceed.
You see, we are not very good at telling the difference between what’s actually happening (seeing) and our beliefs about what’s happening (perceiving). Our thoughts are so powerful that we completely buy in to them and if we are not mindful of our thoughts, they can distort our perception, and we continue to operate on autopilot.
Red flags that suggest you would benefit from practicing mindfulness:
- You constantly feel stressed or anxious
- Others have told you that you get very angry, very quickly
- You rush from one activity to the next to the point you feel you are always rushing
- You have difficulty concentrating and have stopped certain activities as a result (e.g. reading books)
- You are having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
Mindful awareness means not only choosing to pay attention to your experiences, but to do it with curiosity and without judgment. Starting to get a bit wishy washy again? What this means is that you are trying not to criticise or judge thoughts and feelings as “good” or “bad”. Often we respond to pain (physical or emotional) as a bad thing, but what if it just is? It’s just an experience that you can notice and be curious about.
Meditation is a common way that people learn mindfulness. But if meditation doesn’t blow your hair back don’t worry, there are plenty of non-meditation ways to learn. For example:
- Choose to pay attention to a certain task like walking to the bus stop, washing the dishes or eating lunch;
- Notice as much as you can about that activity (what can you see, smell, hear, taste and feel);
- You will get distracted a million times and that’s ok. Just notice when you are distracted;
- Acknowledge what’s distracted you (e.g. “that’s a thought about work/Mum/that weird thing on my right big toe”);
- Choose to refocus back on the task at hand.
Aim to do this initially for 5 minutes at a time. Any longer and you are likely to pay the activity off altogether. The point of this activity is not to have a clear mind, but to develop the mental skills of being aware of your thoughts and choosing where you will pay attention. Notice, acknowledge, refocus.
Quick ways to practice mindfulness
- Pay attention to your breathing. Notice the movement of your chest as you breath in and out. See and feel the breath entering and leaving your body. You will get distracted, that’s ok. Notice you are distracted and start again.
- What can you hear right now? Notice the sounds inside your body. Next notice the sounds inside the room. Notice the sounds outside of the room. Try this when you are trying to fall asleep or on the bus/train.
- Notice as much as you can about your next meal. Notice the colours and textures on the plate. What smells can you notice? What is happening in your mouth as you anticipate the first bite? What textures can you feel in your mouth as you chew?
- Next time you are walking somewhere pay attention with curiosity to the sounds your feet make with each step. What else can you hear? See if you can be present in the sounds for the rest of the journey.
- Can you just observe your thoughts like they are trains moving past on the tracks? Watch them come from one direction and leave the other. Don’t judge your thoughts, just observe them and let them go.
As the guys at Happify will say, mindfulness will not fix everything and make your life a constant parade of unicorns and rainbows. It is a multipurpose skills that can help you in every life domain.
Want to learn more?
In person: the Parramatta Psychology Clinic delivers individual and group mindfulness training (to book call 9687 9776 or click here)
Self help book: Full Catastrophy Living by Jon Kabat-Zin