Today is Time to Talk Day, so we asked Dr Hazel Harrison, creator of our brand new series called 'The Art of Listening', for tips on how to talk about mental health.
In the next instalment of our Mental Health 101 series, we look at one of the foundational pillars of our platform - mindfulness.
Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword in modern times. With a growing adoption rate in different settings including schools, prisons, workplaces, the sports arena and the healthcare system, mindfulness has moved beyond its initial religious context into secular life too.
There are many training courses, workshops, teachers, online courses and books available to learn mindfulness from, and there are now many apps devoted to delivering mindfulness in guided bite-sized sessions.
What is mindfulness, where did it come from and how can we incorporate it into our lives?
Mindfulness involves three key things: attention, intention and attitude. Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and the person chiefly responsible for popularising mindfulness in the West, defines it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Instead of our mind being a slave to habitual tendencies, like always focusing on the negative, we choose what we pay attention to.
Instead of our mind being stuck in the past or future without our realising it, we come back to the now, the only place where life truly happens.
And instead of our mind judging our inner and outer experiences as either good or bad, we adopt a curious, compassionate, open and accepting attitude towards our thoughts, feelings, emotions and everything we experience through our senses.
Although mindfulness has its roots in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, it has now been adapted to suit our modern, secular world. In recent years, scientific research has shown mindfulness to be effective in managing depression and anxiety, lowering stress, reducing rumination, increasing focus, improving emotional regulation and boosting working memory. And there‘s mounting evidence to show that regular mindfulness practice can lead to structural changes in the brain which suggests longer-term impact. It is this scientific confirmation of the positive impact of mindfulness that has led to its increasing popularity across many different domains today.
Mindfulness and mental health
When it comes to mental health, mindfulness has proved an effective approach in its own right, but it has also been incorporated into other therapies, such as Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
As with any capacity or skill, we can strengthen mindfulness through practice, with mindfulness meditation being a very effective form of practice. There are different practices we can use, but all will generally involve:
Many of us will feel that we’re failing when we’ve become distracted or lost in thought during our practice, but this isn’t the case. The very act of noticing this is an important part of mindfulness. Thoughts wander and that’s normal - the key is not judging ourselves when this happens.
Besides sitting mindfulness meditation, we can also practice mindfulness meditation during movement, through practices such as yoga, tai chi, or any physical activity for that matter. And although mindfulness meditation is how we intentionally develop our capacity to be mindful, we don’t have to meditate to bring mindfulness into our daily life. We can choose to be mindful at any moment of the day, simply by setting an intention to be mindful and then paying attention to our moment-by-moment experience in a curious, non-judgmental way. This might be when you’re washing the dishes, as you choose to notice what the soapy water feels like, what the washing up liquid smells like, and what the scrubbing of your dishes sounds like, rather than being lost in thought. Or, it might be as you eat your food, as you slow down and notice the texture, taste and effect of your meal. In fact, any experience, both inner and outer, is an opportunity to be mindful. Once we understand the basic mechanics of mindfulness, applying it in our lives can have a noticeable impact on our mental health and wellbeing.
Mindfulness and Unmind
Alongside Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Positive Psychology, mindfulness is one of the pillars of the Unmind platform. We have a comprehensive suite of downloadable guided mindfulness audios, ranging from 1-min to 20-min, as well as an 8-week mindfulness course created in collaboration with ex-Buddhist Monk, secular mindfulness teacher and co-author of the book ‘Mindful Compassion’, Choden. Mindfulness is not a panacea, but it can certainly form an effective part of a proactive and preventative approach to taking care of our minds.