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 by meditating 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.

 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, 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. As psychologists in the 1970s began looking for methods to ease anxiety and stress, so more therapeutic programmes based on MBSR started to be developed.

Can mindfulness help with anxiety?

Yes, mindfulness is known to have a positive impact on anyone who is suffering from anxiety. Results vary from person to person when they take up things like MBSR programmes, but by far the majority of people who take part 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?

One or two mindfulness sessions will have limited physiological impact on people's brains. However, a longer-term commitment to it will mean that the brain slowly starts to rewire itself. The so-called neuro-plasticity of the brain comes into play with any regular behaviour. 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.

Where can you start with mindfulness?

Anyone who wants to be more mindful can help themselves with a series of simple measures. Taking time out, so you are not rushing so much and trying to empty your mind of thoughts are good first steps. Focussing on what you are grateful for and even making a list of your 'blessings' will also help. 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.

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