What Is Mindfulness, and How to Use It to Look after Your Mental Health?
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Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally focusing your attention on the present moment. You perceive the present without any judgment and seize dwelling on the past or projecting into the future.
Mindfulness is a very popular practice in today’s extremely fast-paced world rife with time pressures. People who incorporate it in their lives often report increased happiness, acceptance, and compassion as well as reduced levels of stress.
Wondering whether mindfulness is right for you and how to get started? In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what mindfulness really means and how you can use this practice in your day-to-day life.
Mindfulness involves maintaining a conscious awareness of your thoughts and feelings, bodily sensations, and your external environment in an objective manner without judging them as good or bad. It has two key ingredients: attention (focusing on what’s happening in the present moment) and acceptance (observing those thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment).
This practice is probably best understood as self-awareness training that can help you acknowledge, accept, and deal with difficult thoughts and emotions. Instead of being overwhelmed by them, you’re better able to manage them.
Although mindfulness has its origins in Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy, you don’t have to be spiritual to try it. Anyone can benefit from mindfulness, using it as a tool to manage their mental health and well-being. The emergence of mindfulness in Western culture can be attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979 to treat chronic pain. He also brought mindfulness into mainstream clinical practice.
Since the 1970s the practice has been widely adopted by people of all cultures and religions. Over decades, scientists have studied the physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness and have accumulated a lot of evidence. Research has shown positive effects of mindfulness on different aspects of overall health, including the body, the mind, the brain, and behavior, as well as our relationships with others.
Types of mindfulness
People practice mindfulness in many different ways. It can be cultivated within or outside of formal mindfulness meditation that can involve guided sessions with trained practitioners or psychologists as well as integrated meditation and mindfulness classes. There are also different apps that train and guide users through mindfulness techniques.
Here are some of the popular mindfulness techniques, which can help induce a sense of calm and make you more mindful and less distracted throughout the day:
- Body scan involves scanning your body from head to toe to gain awareness of your physical existence and sensory experience
- Focused attention involves focusing attention on breath to anchor the mind and maintain awareness
- Loving kindness focuses on increasing compassion for yourself and others
- Skillful compassion involves focusing on a person you know or love
- Visualization involves focusing on a person or something more abstract, for example, imagining your thoughts as clouds
- Reflection involves asking yourself a question and focusing on it
Mindfulness has also become a therapeutic technique that is used to address different mental health issues. Mindfulness practices have been integrated into
- Mindfulness-based pain management (MBPM)
- Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
- Mindfulness-based art therapy (MBAT)
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
How does mindfulness work?
Researchers believe that practicing mindfulness leads to positive changes in our brain and biology, improving our physical and mental health. These positive outcomes happen because mindfulness can reduce the body’s response to stress.
Psychologists have found that mindfulness influences two different stress pathways in the brain. It changes brain structures and activity in regions that are associated with attention and emotion regulation. By reminding yourself to view the world with curiosity and without judgment, you can increase the part of your brain that is responsible for your emotions and reduce the neurological “fight or flight” response.
Some researchers also believe that mindfulness works, in part, by helping people experience negative thoughts and painful emotions with greater balance and acceptance. Practicing mindfulness, you learn to accept your experiences rather than react to them with aversion and avoidance.
We should mention other helpful physiological effects as well. Mindful practices often involve deep breathing and physical activity such as yoga or stretching, so they can decrease tension in your body and physical stress.
Can mindfulness help address mental health problems?
There’s plenty of scientific evidence that mindfulness can help us improve our mental well-being. Mindfulness-based therapy and interventions (MBCT and MBSR) have been found effective in addressing the following mental health issues:
Studies show that individuals who experience depressive symptoms following depression episodes benefit a lot from mindfulness practice. Mindfulness prevents rumination over upsetting events. As a result, this practice keeps individuals from focusing on negative emotions.
People with anxiety disorders have also shown a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms after mindfulness-based interventions. Mindfulness is also considered an effective strategy to reduce anxiety in the long term.
This practice allows you to gain perspective on your thoughts and take control. As a result, you’re able to take yourself from a state of anxiety to a calmer, more present state.
Mindfulness is also effective in helping with daily stressors and more serious stress experienced by individuals with chronic pain or life-threatening diseases. For instance, research shows that MBSR is effective in reducing stress in people with breast cancer.
Research suggests that people who have a greater sense of mindfulness enjoy better and healthier romantic relationships. They deal with relationship stress more constructively and tend to have better control of their emotions.
What’s more, individuals who practice mindfulness are reported to have a lower stress response during the conflict.
Studies also show that mindfulness practices are effective in controlling eating disorders such as binge eating and emotional eating. Through mindfulness, people are able to concentrate on their thoughts and understand what’s making them want to indulge in unhealthy eating patterns.
As a result, people who practice mindfulness are better-positioned to challenge their thoughts and make different choices. It’s a strategy that gets better with practice.
How to practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is best achieved through meditation, and all mindfulness techniques are a form of meditation. Although meditation may seem esoteric or inaccessible, it can be actually very simple. It’s possible to practice mindfulness through daily living. You can do this by focusing on the present and quieting your inner dialogue.
Practice mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation combines meditation with a practice of mindfulness. It’s a systematic method of focusing your attention. It enables you to intentionally draw your focus to the present moment so you can go off negativity, challenge racing thoughts, and calm both your body and mind. The goal is to get comfortable with your thoughts and feelings without suppressing them.
It can take some time to get used to mindfulness meditations so it feels quite natural and make it a part of your regular routine. If you practice regularly, it can help you relieve stress and will have a lasting positive impact on your physical and mental health.
If you are too busy to dedicate special time to practice structured mindfulness exercises such as body scan meditation or sitting meditation, it’s possible to include mindfulness practices in your everyday activities.
There’re easy exercises that are meant to transform everyday experiences into mindful moments. For example, you can focus on your thoughts and breathing while exercising or try to live in the moment and observe the sensations of the world around you as you go for a walk.
Pay more attention
When you have a busy schedule, it can be hard to slow down and notice things. If you want to be more present, start paying attention to what’s happening around you. Be keen on your feelings, senses, and thoughts. Also, slow down and try to enjoy what you’re experiencing.
Focus on the present
Stop thinking about the past or overwhelming yourself with fears of future occurrences. You cannot change the past, and you have little influence on the future, especially in matters out of your control.
Focusing on the present moment is an excellent mindfulness practice. It allows you to focus on what you can control and relieves anxiety and stress that stems from fears of the unknown.
Self-acceptance is also an excellent way of practicing mindfulness. Stop all the negative thoughts that you have about yourself. Instead, focus on your strengths and things you love about yourself. Treat yourself as you would treat your good friend.
Focus on your breathing
When you start having negative thoughts, sit down and try to take controlled breaths. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and pay attention to how your body moves as you do so. Doing this for a few minutes will help ease your mind.
Other ways to practice mindfulness
In fact, there are limitless ways to practice mindfulness. And the best thing is that simple mindfulness exercises can be practiced anywhere and anytime, and you don’t need any special equipment for them. You can try the following techniques to see what works for you:
- Mindful eating – pay attention to the taste, sight, and textures of what you eat or drink. It can help you better understand why you eat the way you do and the thoughts that drive your choices, fostering a healthier relationship with food.
- Mindful walking – become aware of your surroundings, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells, and focus on how your body and mind feel while you’re moving. This practice combines the benefits of walking with mindfulness and can help improve your psychological and physiological wellbeing.
- Mindful coloring – when you color pre-drawn illustrations with abstract, intricate patterns, focus on the colors and the sensation of your pencil against the paper. This exercise allows you to achieve mindfulness through art and incorporate creativity into your daily life.
- Mindful journaling – it’s a meditative writing when you reflect and respond to what your senses have noticed. It’s a great way to open an honest dialogue with yourself that can help you become more aware of your emotional triggers and negative thought patterns.
Mindfulness helps us stay attuned to our inner state and pay attention to what is happening around us. It’s an important skill to develop because it allows us to achieve a state of focused relaxation by paying deliberate attention to our thoughts and sensations and blocking out external distractions.
Incorporating mindfulness meditation practice into your daily life can seem not easy at first. When you begin, it may be extremely challenging to control your thoughts and focus on the present. Don’t be too hard on yourself because you’re learning a new skill.
Mindfulness can be difficult, but practice makes perfect. Try to slowly build up your practice bit by bit without setting ambitious goals. And remember that even a few minutes a day can be beneficial to your wellbeing.
Still, you should understand that mindfulness is a general wellbeing tool. If you want to work on a specific mental health issue, you should consider starting therapy, which is a more focused treatment that can help address different symptoms. Working with a therapist will allow you to understand the underlying causes of your problems and learn coping skills that can help you manage difficult emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.