Mindfulness as a superpower

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Sometimes I feel that mindfulness has taken on “fad” status, like an Atkins diet or cross fit training. It sounds like a silver bullet that will solve all of your mental health concerns, no matter what. My mum used to say “if it sounds too good to true, it probably is”.

The thing is, there is a lot of good science that indicates mindfulness improves 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. It’s positive impact is so reliable that health scientists consider it a health “no brainer” like brushing your teeth and exercising.

For some, mindfulness is too wishy washy, too hippie or too soft to even consider learning. My opinion is that it is a basic mental skill that is not only useful for mental health, but is an awesome skill to enhance performance. In fact, I’ve used it as the basis of mental toughness training for football teams and soldiers in Afghanistan (more on this in a later blog).

So, what is mindfulness? Happify.com have a great animated video which is all of 2:43 minutes which defines 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.

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 criticize 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,

  1. Choose to pay attention to a certain task like walking to the bus stop, washing the dishes or eating lunch;
  2. Notice as much as you can about that activity (what can you see, smell, hear, taste and feel);
  3. You will get distracted a million times and that’s ok. Just notice when you are distracted;
  4. Acknowledge what’s distracted you (e.g. “that’s a thought about work/Mum/that weird thing on my right big toe”);
  5. And 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.

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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. Watch the entire Happify video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6T02g5hnT4

For one on one or group mindfulness training contact the Parramatta Psychology Clinic for more information.

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