By Lizzie Stevenson (Mental Health Advisor)
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a topic which has become very popular over recent years, and which you may already be somewhat familiar with.
Understanding the theory behind mindfulness can be helpful, however it is the doing of the practices themselves that will show you the benefits.
Therefore, after you finish reading this you can listen to a recorded mindfulness practice that you can find on the Life Tools Blackboard course.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of what mindfulness is, briefly put, mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness: it is about an awareness of what’s going on, both outside in your environment and inside through your internal experience.
Research has demonstrated that regular mindfulness practice has many benefits including managing stress, thinking more clearly, improving memory and helping with emotional resilience. So, you can see how this technique can be particularly useful to do well in your studies.
Definitions of Mindfulness
The Oxford Dictionary (2015) describes mindfulness as:
A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is a professor of Medicine in the USA. He founded an 8-week course called ‘Mindfulness Based Stress reduction’ in the 1970s. A metaphor he used to describe mindfulness which I find sums it up well is:
The thoughts in your mind are like a waterfall filled mostly with thoughts of ‘me, me, me’. In this metaphor mindfulness allows you to step away from the current of the gushing waterfall and observe the contents of your thoughts in the waterfall non-judgmentally, from a distance.
It is not trying to stop or change the water as it flows, nor is it getting swept away by the torrent of water caught up in our thoughts. It is being aware of the water, watching and observing it from a distance.
What mindfulness is not
Despite many proven benefits of mindfulness, people are often wary when they hear that term. Therefore it is helpful to talk about what mindfulness is not.
People often think that mindfulness is about emptying the mind completely – a hard task. This is also not true. Mind wandering is very normal, our minds naturally get us tied up in knots over all sorts of things. Mindfulness is about noticing when our minds are doing this – and gently pulling our attention back to focus.
Another common misconception about mindfulness is that it takes a long time to do, and it requires lots of practice.
Whilst this is somewhat true in that mindfulness is an exercise that requires practice, a few minutes spent practising mindfulness can save you hours of wasted time fretting and worrying. And it is something that you can do in an informal way and incorporate into your every-day routine.
Mindfulness is also not about adopting a passive view of life, stopping us from striving or achieving things. It is about having an awareness of ourselves that can help us choose our goals. And it allows us to find the best path towards reaching these.
Mindfulness is also not a religion. Whilst it is true that many religions have used meditation for spiritual purposes, you don’t have to be religious to practice mindfulness.
How does it work? The Mind-body connection
The mind and body are connected. When we sense a threat, our body reacts and tenses up- ready to fight or run away. This ‘fight or flight’ response happens unconsciously and is quite simplistic.
It does not differentiate between an external threat, like a tiger roaming around campus, and an internal threat – like a bad memory or a worry. Both create the same reaction in our bodies.
This means that when a threat is sensed by the brain the body tenses up to fight or run. This then tells our brain that there is a threat, so it sends messages to the body to tense up further, forming a vicious cycle.
Our body changes and react based on our thoughts. A difficult memory can make us feel stressed in the present, that then manifests in our body, which then signals to our brain that there is a threat.
Stress itself is a normal emotion and sometimes in can come and go easily. However, sometimes we can get stuck in a pattern of stress which is hard to get out of. We may then start wondering why we feel so stressed, and our brain will bring up other worries increasing tension. This can then send us into a spiral that can happen in an instant, before we are even aware of it.
We can’t stop random thoughts appearing that may trigger unhappy memories or stress, but we can use mindfulness to help stop what happens next.
To notice these negative thoughts or feelings, accept them without judgement. Then, shift your attention away from them. This will stop the spiralling of negative thoughts preventing a vicious cycle.
Benefits of Mindfulness
There has been a lot of research into mindfulness and evidence has shown multiple benefits. A few of the main proven benefits of regular mindfulness practice include:
- Reduced anxiety, stress, depression, exhaustion and irritability.
- Improved memory and reaction times (great for students preparing for exams!)
- A reduction in pain and quality of life for suffers of conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic pain and IBS.
- Reduction in self- destructive or addictive behaviour – including excessive alcohol intake.
For more information on the benefits of mindfulness see www.franticworld.com
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever you go, there you are. New York: Hyperion
Siegel, D., (2007) The mindful brain: reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: Norton
Williams, M., Penman, D., (2011) Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. London: Piatkus
Hanson R. (2009) Buddha’s Brain –The practical Neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.