What you need to know about mindfulness

What is mindfulness?

In short, mindfulness is the ability to pay proper attention to the here and now. Psychologists usually describe it as living in the present moment, with less emotional energy being expended on things that have passed or which may – or may not – occur in the future. Various techniques are used by people to achieve a greater level of present-moment living. In most cases, modern methods for achieving mindfulness are based on Buddhist concepts, such as sati. In large numbers, people practise mindfulness through meditation and paying more attention to positive things in their lives to reduce stress. These mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques which have a proven scientific effect.

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 Where did mindfulness come from?

As mentioned, many of the ideas behind mindfulness come from Buddhist techniques, which try to put people on the road towards greater enlightenment. In particular, the Tibetan forms of Buddhism place a great emphasis on mindfulness. In the twentieth century, several western writers and thinkers began to popularise mindful methodologies. Herbert Benson and Richard J Davidson are just two examples of prominent writers who did just that. As psychologists in the 1970s began looking for methods to ease anxiety and stress, more therapeutic programmes based on MBSR started to be developed, laying the ground for the activities, workshops and courses that are commonly recommended these days.

Can mindfulness help with anxiety?

Yes, mindfulness has been known to have a positive impact on anyone who is suffering from anxiety or similar mental health issues. Of course, results vary from person to person when they take up things like MBSR programmes or other workshops and courses related to mindfulness. However, by far, the majority of people who take part and start incorporating mindfulness in their life will see some benefit. Indeed, in some cases, the symptoms of anxiety and other mental conditions, such as depression, can all but go away completely. Even hard-to-treat conditions like psychosis are now treated by some clinicians using methods derived from mindfulness.

How does mindfulness change the brain?

Participating in just one or two mindfulness sessions will have limited physiological impact on our brains. However, a longer-term commitment to mindfulness, where you practice regularly, will mean that the brain eventually slowly starts to rewire itself. The so-called neuroplasticity of the brain comes into play with any regular behaviour and habits we create. With greater mindfulness, people's neural networks alter, which helps them to gain deeper insights into their own lives and outlooks. It also helps with a range of mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, and can also be hugely helpful in stress management and with finding balance in life.

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Where can you start with mindfulness?

Anyone who wants to try and become more mindful can help themselves achieve that with a series of simple measures. Taking time out of your day, so you are not rushing so much and trying to empty your mind of thoughts are good first steps. Focussing on all the things you are grateful for and perhaps even making a list of your 'blessings' will also help; some people include this in their journaling routine. These days, law firms, schools and commercial organisations sometimes run mindfulness sessions to improve productivity and to reduce time off from stress. There are many support organisations you can turn to for further advice.

Why is mindfulness good for you?

As previously mentioned, being mindful provides a raft of benefits that include things like stress reduction and the ability to cope with stress with less anxiety. Other physiological benefits have been studied by scientists all around the world, too. For example, certain physical conditions that are associated with stress - such as heart disease, for example – are known to be less prevalent among mindful people. That is not to say that it can ever be a cure for such conditions. However, the regular practice of being mindful should help you to avoid developing such health issues or – at least – be less likely to suffer from them in later life. Looking at it from a wider perspective, being mindful is about being more self-aware and aware of others in the moments we share with them. In this sense, it can simply make us better people. For example, we might find we exhibit greater tolerance of others, more empathy, less annoyance and higher levels of sympathy. In this regard, being mindful is better for everyone, not just the individual.

Can mindfulness help with weight loss?

There is no direct physiological link that means taking up mindful practices will mean that you lose weight. After all, much of what is going on when we are mindful is carried out in the head rather than physically. Although brainpower might burn a few calories, it is not like taking an exercise class or heading to the pool for a dip. And yet, this is not the whole story because there are some psychological links between being more mindful and dieting. In this sense, it must be said that mindfulness is no instant solution that will help you to shed the pounds. However, it can help you to see the wider picture, to make better decisions about when to exercise and when to kick back. In addition, it helps some people to stick to healthy eating habits which can, of course, produce weight loss. In these terms, being more mindful is something that we can also use to improve our all-round health, including maintaining a healthy body mass index.

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How does mindfulness empower people?

One of the key aspects of empowerment that being more mindful can offer you is that you will find yourself more resilient to problems. Let's look at the aforementioned way that being mindful helps some people to maintain a healthy weight. Let's imagine you have decided to cut out biscuits as part of a healthy eating regime, but you are offered one and eat it. Being mindful of it might help you to avoid the temptation to begin with, of course. However, it should also put into perspective that just one biscuit will not, of itself, make that much difference anyway. If you are the sort of person who has good intentions but then isn't always resilient enough to see them through because of minor setbacks, like this example, then being more mindful of yourself and your actions is likely to help a great deal. Being more mindful also helps to build greater confidence from greater self-awareness, something that many people find empowering, as well.

When can mindfulness be bad for you?

Some people experience a bad psychological reaction from mindfulness-meditation techniques. In such cases, it is best to avoid meditation or to seek professional help. That said, the people who suffer from their meditation sessions in this way are by far the minority. It is simply something to be aware of in case it does not suit you. More widely, some scholars have criticised certain Western approaches to mindfulness, saying that it has been commodified in certain ways that bypass the original intent of the idea. Some media reports have also attacked the rise in numbers of people being mindful as something that leads to greater fear and anxiety, not less. Nevertheless, few peer-reviewed studies back up such notions, although, in fairness, new research in this area is being conducted all the time.

What are mindfulness exercises?

As you have read, one way to be more mindful is to meditate from time to time. People with a natural affinity for meditation tend to find being mindful easier, but this is not always the case. One of the ways that many people who wish to be more mindful get into 'the zone', as it were, will make use of breathing techniques that focus the mind on the bodily activity of inhaling and exhaling. Just applying the mind in this way can help lots of people to become more mindful of their present without judging themselves or others. For others, guided meditation sessions that are led by someone else will be easier to follow. Others still will make use of guided imagery to help them gain a more mindful state. These days, it is easy to obtain guided approaches via anything from YouTube videos to so-called mindfulness apps, which are available to download onto any smart device.

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How is mindfulness used in business?

One of the most important aspects of mindfulness for many people is that it helps them to focus on the here and now. People who might feel overwhelmed by what is around the corner, or the 'could be' situations that may never come to pass may find that being more mindful helps them to prioritise what is most important right now and to discard everything else that is a distraction or that can wait until later. This is a key business skill, especially in management, when you can be exposed to lots of different pressures from staff, clients, other teams in your organisation and competitors. As a result, more and more management training sessions will talk about how decision-makers can be more dynamic in the workplace by adopting mindfulness techniques.

What is the psychological definition of mindfulness?

Because being mindful is an ancient tradition, it needed to be redefined much more recently to fit in with a Western view of psychology. There have been multiple definitions that psychologist have put forward, including the simple idea that being mindful is about developing wisdom through self-knowledge. For others, mindfulness is a mental strategy that tries to take the emotion out of the moment so that more rational decisions can be made. And yet, being mindful of one's emotions does not necessarily mean that we do not feel them. Some psychologists define being mindful as the practice of meditation itself, while others see it more as a state that people try to maintain through their meditative practices. There again, others think of it as a trait that is akin to aspects of someone's personality. Therefore, although there is little common ground on the subject, most psychologists would agree that how mindful, or otherwise, someone is can be scored on a scale. Needless to say, psychologists around the world have numerous different scales they use with little standardisation among them.

What is mindfulness-based pain management?

A little like MBSR, mindfulness-based pain management (MBPM) is a technique that makes use of mindfulness to achieve a desired outcome. In the case of MBPM, the use of loving kindness techniques are popular to help people deal with the chronic pain they may suffer as a result of trauma or long-term illnesses. It is not used to overcome singular moments of anguish, such as accidentally cutting oneself; rather, it forms a framework for dealing with pain when it occurs without such a heavy reliance on drug therapies. People who need palliative care may be offered MBPM training so they can enjoy their time without being unduly influenced by the effects of certain painkilling therapies.

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Mindfulness in summary

Despite the fact that there is no uniform approach to being mindful, it is generally accepted to mean the practice of being more present in the moment. Whether this means avoiding the distractions of modern life, lowering work pressures or simply not worrying about the future so much, it would all count. The benefits of being mindful have been written about and studied for many centuries in both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Western forms of mindfulness borrow heavily from these traditions, but some practices differ, which leads some people to think that something has been lost in the process.

When people focus on the here and now, they tend to make better decisions, not just for themselves but for everyone around them. Various methods are used to get into the right state of mind for this to work, the most common one being meditation. Given that people's success with meditation can vary greatly from individual to individual, it is important to bear in mind that there are lots of different techniques available to help with this. None is right, and none is wrong. Some are simply more suited to certain individuals than others. To some, it is working out which ones work best that is all part of being more mindful in the first place. It is worth trying them because the benefits of taking a more mindful approach can be widespread, impacting on many aspects of our lives.

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