It is a term we hear a lot but what does it really mean? And how can mindfulness improve our mental and physical health?
The fretful mind
Our mind is busy all the time, it wanders, jumps from subject to subject, switches between the past, present and future, worries, processes information and creates its own constructs. While the mind is doing all that, it isn’t fully present and focused on what we’re actually doing. Often, we’re not even aware of what’s going on around us. A groundbreaking study showed that on average, we spend 47% of time lost in thought and it doesn’t make us happy at all.
According to science, even if we think about pleasant things, it doesn’t make us feel better than simply being fully present in the moment. Which is what mindfulness is all about!
The reasons why the mind wanders are many. One of them is that we switch to autopilot when doing routine tasks, such as washing the dishes or going to work. We do these things automatically and you may think that you’re actually making the task more pleasant by thinking about something else but data show this is not so. It has to do with other reasons why we get lost in thought – we worry, imagine various scenarios for a particular situation, argue with ourselves, obsess, replay situations that happened, etc. All these things are a part of our mental processing but if we habitually get lost in thought, it makes us unhappy and we miss a lot of what’s going on – both around us and in our own bodies.
Sometimes we actively let the mind wander because we’re avoiding doing something unpleasant or delaying work. You may call that mental procrastination. It’s a normal tendency but training our mind to be more present and drawing it back to what’s literally in front of us can considerably improve your quality of life.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness means being fully present in the moment, aware of your bodily sensations, thoughts, breath, and the environment, being open to what is, accepting it and not judging.
Essentially, it means paying attention to the here and now, both internally (your body, breath, thoughts, sensations and feelings) and externally (surroundings, sounds, people, animals). The key is to not judge, run away with thoughts or react.
Mindfulness is both a state of being and practice in itself – drawing your attention back to the present moment. It has roots in the Buddhist tradition but has become an adopted practice worldwide.
Try a little mindful moment right now – stop reading, sit up straight, and just scan your body noticing any held tensions, try to still your mind but notice where your thoughts are running without judgment, and just breathe, taking in the surroundings, being present.
It’s hard, isn’t it?
Focusing the mind on the here and now, and your own self is tricky for most of us because it often triggers self-critical thoughts and worries. Research shows that we tend to avoid it so fiercely that people would rather receive mild electric shocks than being left alone with their own thoughts!
However, according to numerous studies, training your mind to be more present, and cultivating mindfulness leads to enhanced well-being, greater emotion control, improved self-awareness, better focus on tasks, and makes you more resilient to stress and anxiety. It can also help improve your athletic performance and help manage chronic pain and other issues. Through mindfulness, you’re essentially reprogramming your brain, making it work better.
Being mindful doesn’t necessarily make you happy but it improves the way you process information and situations, and how you react to them. It follows that being more mindful can also significantly improve your relationships.
The power of cultivating mindfulness
There are many benefits to practicing mindfulness. It isn’t simply about breaking negative patterns. This is what science says about its benefits:
- Mental health and cognitive benefits – cultivating mindfulness improves your ability to sustain attention and it makes you better at problem solving because it keeps your mind more alert and less stuck in habitual patterns. It has also been used as a very effective tool in the treatment of anxiety and depression – this is due to mindfulness promoting acceptance, non-judgment, and deeper insight into situations, whilst lowering stress levels, and increasing self-esteem.
- Brain reprogramming – if you practice mindfulness techniques (explained below), it changes how your brain responds to stress. It doesn’t mean you will be stress-free but your brain’s go-to reactions will change so you will be less reactive to stressors, have greater emotion control, and recover from stressful situations better. Being more present in the situation, and aware of your own thoughts and emotions also improves how you handle it.
- Physical benefits – cultivating mindfulness can help to lower your blood pressure, which has a lot to do with stress. In fact, mindfulness has been used in many blood-pressure-lowering programs as a supportive therapy. Scientific studies also reveal that mindfulness can offer relief if you suffer from chronic pain, some inflammatory conditions or diabetes. However, more research is needed to gather more information.
- Social and relationship benefits – practicing mindfulness makes you better able to control your emotions and responses. Research shows that partners who practice mindfulness are less likely to engage in negative behavior, such as storming off and have fewer stress hormones after a conflict. Being more mindful makes you listen to your partner/friends/family more openly, respond better, and be more accepting, which results in better relationships. And that’s not where it ends! Practicing mindfulness also helps to reduce racial and age bias and discrimination. In one study, a short mindfulness exercise was all that was needed for significantly greater openness and trust towards people of different ethnicities.
Mindfulness techniques in daily life
There are many ways in which you can bring more mindfulness into your daily life. Here are some simple techniques to train your mind:
- Self-awareness – a few times during the day, stop and focus on your breath, body, sensations and emotions, your thoughts and surroundings. Don’t judge, just take stock. You can even set a timer on your phone to beep at certain times to remind you.
- Being present – while walking or driving, observe the world around you. What can you see, hear, smell? Do you notice anything new?
- Moment of gratitude – take a minute to appreciate all the good things and people in your life you are grateful for, focus on positive things to appreciate what you have. This is not just an exercise in gratitude, it also draws your attention from what was and what may be towards what is right now.
- Self-compassion – when you catch yourself having a negative inner monologue, put a stop to it and replace it with a few positive statements about yourself. It’s about realizing what you’re good at and your strong suits, dissolving self-sabotaging thoughts and doubts.
- Autonomy moment – take a few minutes alone, ‘a breather’, so you can settle within yourself, without having to react to anything/anyone. Far too often, we are in a reactive mode when we simply react to demands and external pressures. In that state, our decision-making can be biased and our stress levels shoot up. Stepping outside of it can help you re-center and realign your priorities.
- Mindful listening – when you’re listening to someone speak, whether at work, at home or in the gym, practice listening without judgment. Try to hear what they are saying and don’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions. It’s challenging but you may be surprised how it can change your perception.
- Cultivating positive relations with others – it could be saying hello to your neighbor, thanking the bus driver when getting off, or asking your colleague how their day is going. These small gestures not only make you and the other person feel good, but they also help to make you more present.
- Savoring – whether you’re eating a meal or just finished a workout, savor the moment, enjoying it with all your senses. By being mindful in these moments, you are increasing pleasurable feelings and it will make you feel better for longer than if you’re not paying attention.
- Meaningful activity – doing something that is meaningful to you improves your wellbeing but also invites mindfulness. If you’re doing something you enjoy and see meaning in, it’s easier to be fully present. It can be anything from making a meal to working on your bike.
Practicing mindfulness improves just about every aspect of your life. It boosts your mental and physical health and bolsters your relationships. It’s also an indispensable tool in sports in yoga – we’ll look at that in the next blog.
In a nutshell, mindfulness is about bringing your attention to the ‘here and now’, being perceptive and appreciating what you have. There are many techniques, and it’s a good idea to set a daily reminder for yourself to practice at least some of them. It takes hardly any time yet can noticeably transform your life and performance.