What Is Mindfulness and Why Should You Care?

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Guest blog by Jack Ramage

Mindfulness: it’s not just an empty buzz-word thrown around by new-age hippies; it is a hot topic of conversation in the field of health and medicine. From the development of mindfulness apps to the formation of new mental health therapies, mindfulness is seeping into the mainstream, soon to be placed alongside the classic five-a-day and eight-hours of sleep as a guide towards healthy living. But before we start blessing mindfulness as the savour of all our problems – something that many media ‘psychologists’ have a habit of doing – it’s important to pin down what mindfulness actually is.

To put things in brief, mindfulness come from Buddhist origins but has since been westernised by psychologist John Kabat Zinn with its first emergence coming from the belief that it would be a useful approach in helping individuals to deal with pain. One of the key premises of mindfulness is that you don’t necessarily put feelings into boxes as good or bad – they just are. It a way of altering people’s relationships with particularly negative experiences.

As mindfulness started to gain traction, individuals reported positive effects in other areas. As of today the most popular, most delivered, most researched programme based upon the premise of mindfulness is the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, devised from Kabat Zinn himself.

Dr Siobhan Hugh-Jones, an associate professor at the University of Leeds who specialises in the effect of mindfulness on coping and resilience, described mindfulness as: “A whole body of ideas that are currently circulating about wellbeing. People tend to use the phrase practicing mindfulness which means people take time to regularly practice this state of being. You could call it a skill in order to live a mindful life.” Similar to going to the gym or taking vitamins, mindfulness is a practice that needs to be regularly maintained in order to reap the rewards.

Mindfulness can be considered an art. “When you are practicing mindfulness and you are trying to live a mindful life, you are trying to be very present moment orientated. You are trying to not get too caught up in your head thinking about things that are not in the present, it helps you to stay connected and live in the moment.” And perfection of this art is important, the ability to separate yourself from difficult but temporary thoughts and feelings that take your mind out of the present moment.

Dr Hugh-Jones highlights: “It’s particularly helpful for experiences around anxiety and depression, because people seem to have thoughts that take you into the future with anxiety or transfix on the past with depression.” She describes this process as anxious or depression-driven thoughts  as hijacking the mind and the goal is to eliminate these thoughts by only focussing on the present in an attempt to benefit an individual’s wellbeing.

It takes one google search to show that mindfulness doesn’t come without the good, the bad and the ugly. Criticisms like: ‘it leads to the abandonment of all other coping mechanisms; it leads to the constant chase of a ‘feel good’ state’, are often voiced on the planes of the internet. But it’s important to recognise that research is still trying to understand who mindfulness might benefit. “It doesn’t seem to work for everybody – generally people have misconceptions about what mindfulness actually is.”

However, there is a growing body of work that suggest practicing mindfulness has minimal risk but a likelihood of high benefits.  In Dr Hugh-Jones opinion “Would it help every person? Probably not. Would it help quite a few people? Probably yes.” So what’s the harm in giving it a go?

Stress, something that plagues every person at some point in their career, is a common target for mindfulness. “A lot of the mindfulness courses are focused on stress because stress has a physiological component, you feel it in your body, as well as emotional and cognitive components, you have stressful thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness offers something for all those components which is why its effective.” So perhaps next time you’re facing the deadline blues, a dose of mindfulness could do the trick and could be as good for your body as it is for your mind.

Reports seem to suggest it’s very useful for someone who doesn’t usually realise how much their holding tensions – they might be grinding teeth, getting headaches or have perpetually tense shoulders – and go through life carrying these physical manifestations.  “When you are mindful you are trying to say, this is happening in my body, it’s helpful to be aware of it and to notice it – you don’t have to change it or do anything, but the noticing itself seems very therapeutic.”

So, even a simple recognition of the stress in your body seems to automatically shift your psychological state. Dr Hugh-Jones illustrates the similarity between this process and managing thoughts through mindfulness, stating that when you are mindful you take on an observing stance, recognising thoughts as things that come and go. “We have very little control over them – it’s actually quite hard to control them – so a more mindful approach to thoughts, some thoughts are helpful, some are not but I can just notice what my mind is up to now, for instance “I am stressed”, “I can’t cope”, “I’m not good enough” – and they’re just thoughts.”

The practice separates physical feelings and cognitive thoughts about stress as just experiences that we have rather than what defines us. “It’s important to realise that when you feel panicked or worried that these are just emotions that will come and go – we might have to carry them around with us for a while but if we connect with the present moment and what matters to us right now, that seems to help.”

But will all this being said, can the practice of mindfulness really make a difference to our everyday-lives? The answer seems to be a resounding yes. “People use it all sorts of ways, practical ways. Often when you’re walking around or in the shower, your mind is always focused on what’s next. That’s not living right now.”

So a mindful person would say: ‘Oh look, I’ve noticed my mind is doing that. I’m going to try come back to the present and feel the water, enjoy the sensation. I’m going to walk and actually notice what I’m doing, notice the people I see. Just be present.’ The moment of connecting to the right now has been reported to be an unusual and uplifting state. “I think that’s what someone says its therapeutic, that’s what they mean. They connect with the present.”

So with modern life being over-saturated with stress, perhaps taking time to remain mindful may be the ultimate medicine. So with this being said, you have to ask yourself – ‘what’s the harm in trying?

If you’ve been struggling with your mental health or are having suicidal thoughts, or you know somebody who is, these are the numbers to call to get some help.

Samaritans: 116 123

CALM: 0800 58 58 58

Papyrus (for those under 35): 0800 068 41 41

Childline (for children and young people under 19): 0800 1111

The Silver Line (for the elderly): 0800 4 70 80 90