Mindfulness seems to have become ubiquitous lately; it’s everywhere, mentioned in relation to just about everything. It’s the buzzword on everyone’s lips. But what is it, and can it help your mental health?
What is mindfulness?
The short answer is that mindfulness is being aware of the current moment – you are mindful of what is going on around you. You might think that’s a ridiculous notion, and that you are always aware of what is going on around you – but how often have you set off for work and arrived with no memory of the actual journey? How often do you have to rewind a TV show or movie because you forgot to pay attention to what the character was actually saying?
My favourite example of this is the story of a Zen Buddhist monk who walked in the rain to visit a master. When he arrived he put his umbrella down and took his clogs off, then went in. The master asked him, Did you put your umbrella to the right or the left of your clogs? – and at this point the monk left, knowing that he still had much more studying to do.
Our minds often wander off here, there and everywhere; for me, mindfulness is the practice of gently bringing the mind back into the present moment – so that you are paying attention to where you put your umbrella!
What can mindfulness help with?
Short answer: everything! Ok, so I’m being a little facetious. The thing is though, if you regularly practise mindfulness it can help you to become more aware of not only what goes on around you (so that you don’t need to rewind TV shows so much) but also of your thoughts and feelings.
A good example of this is when we feel a bit off but we don’t know why. I think everyone has those days from time to time where things just don’t feel quite right, but you can’t seem to put your finger on exactly what’s wrong. With a regular mindfulness practice we can be more open to and aware of the more subtle feelings that can easily go undetected in a busy life. So when we feel a bit off we might actually be able to figure out why.
How can mindfulness help with mental health?
Mindfulness therapy is becoming more widely used when it comes to mental health – whether you have a diagnosed condition, or you just want to stay mentally healthy. As mentioned above, cultivating an awareness of thoughts, feelings and sensations can help us to accurately label what is going on in our bodies and minds.
I’ve heard it said that “anxiety is worry about the future and depression is ruminating on the past.” I’m not sure how true that is, but since mindfulness is based on focusing on the present moment, it stands to reason that it could help with both anxiety and depression. For me, the thing about both anxiety and depression (I have been known to struggle with both) is that I’m not always able to say what I’m feeling anxious or depressed about – it’s just this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that has no discernable cause and therefore can’t be easily remedied. With mindfulness, a better awareness of thought and feelings can perhaps help to bring reason to these feelings. As well as this, we can examine the thoughts that have been contributing to this feeling.
As we become more practised in mindfulness, we can begin to detach ourselves from the thoughts generated by the mind – to see that these thoughts are just things that come up, like clouds in the sky – but we are not the clouds; we are the sky. By that I mean: just because your mind comes up with something, you do not need to attach anything to that thought. You don’t need to identify with it, to believe it as irrefutable truth or to do anything more than notice it.
Does mindfulness work?
Much like any self help technique, it works if you put in the effort – for me anyway. Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can affect how the brain works, and even the actual structure of the brain – but not necessarily from a single session. Rather, the effect is cumulative – and the effects are often experienced outside of the actual practice, as we go about our lives.
Mindfulness is not a sticking plaster you can attempt to apply to a gaping wound in the hope that it will miraculously heal you. While a single mindfulness meditation may be of help in the midst of a depressive episode or moment of supreme panic, where it is really useful is as a preventative – a daily practice where the effects gradually build up over time so that you are able to deal with depressed or anxious thoughts and feelings as they arise.
There is evidence that mindfulness can increase activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with positive emotion. This part of the brain is often less active in people who are depressed so it’s worth a try! Check out this article for more details on the science behind mindfulness.
My experience of mindfulness and mental health
I have struggled with both depression and anxiety in the past – sometimes at the same time, which was not fun. Mindfulness is not a miracle cure that makes it go away – but I do feel that it is worth sticking with. Throughout January I have also been doing a “Mindful Mornings” challenge on the Insight Timer app, alongside my usual daily meditation practice.
I find that if I am more aware of how I feel, I can pick up on the more subtle cues that I’m not doing well. I can take action to try and resolve that much sooner – rather than waiting until things get really bad and I look around thinking how did I end up here! As well as this, I do find that a regular mindfulness practice helps me to stay on a more “even keel” so that my moods don’t fluctuate so much. For me, mindfulness and meditation have become a part of my regular self care practice to ensure I stay as mentally healthy as possible.