Heard of mindfulness but never tried it? If so, you’d be forgiven for suspecting that mindfulness is a hokey fad, perhaps even with some chanting, incense, and listening to New Age music…
In fact, the sort of mindfulness that mental health professionals talk about is very likely nothing like that.
Mindfulness is a technique commonly recommended by mental health practitioners to help you manage and deal with stress, worry, depression, anxiety and other concerns.
It’s a practice that’s growing in popularity. Not only has it been widely adopted as part of many different forms of mental health treatment — the benefits of mindfulness techniques are also being recognised by schools, workplaces, government departments, elite athletes and even the armed forces of various countries.
Clearly, there’s something good about mindfulness. But what is it exactly?
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is very basic in principle, and yet it can be quite involved. It’s easy to begin, and yet it can take a lifetime to master.
Mindfulness, when referred to in the modern context of wellbeing and mental health, essentially means to be in the present. Reach Out calls it “paying attention to the present moment” and Beyond Blue refers to it as “being in the present moment, knowing where your mind’s attention is and learning to keep your attention where you want it to be”.
Mindfulness has its origins in Buddhist belief. Its followers practice various physical techniques and mental techniques, along with specific spiritual and moral beliefs. Western practitioners adopted some of these techniques while excluding various spiritual aspects. Consequently, what is popularly referred to today as mindfulness within the context of modern mental health treatment is best (and probably more accurately) referred to as mindfulness relaxation.
How can mindfulness help me?
The purpose of mindfulness relaxation is to calm the mind. It does this in various ways, such as by focussing on being in the moment, acknowledging (but not suppressing) thoughts, and learning to regulate and maintain thoughts and feelings by steering your attention to where you’d like them to remain.
People who practice mindfulness often report that it helps them in various ways. Commonly reported benefits include:
- It helps people feel calmer.
- It improves memory, attention and concentration.
- It helps with rumination (constant, wandering repetitive thoughts, often of a negative nature).
- It reduces feelings of stress and anxiety.
- It generally helps with wellbeing.
Mindfulness can help people experiencing stress, worry, anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders. It can also help with addressing the distressing thought processes behind addictions, eating disorders, relationship problems, self-esteem, and other concerns.
How does it work?
All day, your mind processes ideas, thoughts and feelings, which lead to more thoughts, and which in turn lead to even more thoughts.
Most of these are simply mental ‘chatter’ that comes and goes. However, sometimes those thoughts can take a negative turn, perhaps leading to feelings of distress, worry or anger.
Once you start practicing mindfulness, you may start to notice just how difficult it is to exert absolute control over your thoughts. While you can of course ‘force’ yourself to think about a particular thought, it is virtually impossible to control all thoughts that come into your mind. Thinking about anything will inevitably lead to another thought, while attempting to think about ‘nothing’ will also result in thoughts entering your mind.
Understanding this is one of the keys to mindfulness. When trying mindful relaxation, you’re not trying to actively suppress or cancel thoughts. Instead, you acknowledge that this is precisely what happens in your head. You cannot control that thoughts will occur. However, depending on which mindfulness technique you use, you can control how you respond to those thoughts. For instance, you can gently bring your thoughts back to counting breaths or focussing on your breathing, you can bring your gaze back to the object of your visual focus, you can focus in on a specific sound, and so forth.
Mindfulness training techniques
Mindful relaxation has been recognised since the 1970s for its usefulness in mental health treatment and wellbeing. Here are some common techniques and aspects of modern mindfulness.
Breathing is fundamental to most mindfulness relaxation. Breathing is a unique biological function in that it is both voluntary (you can control it when you think about it) and involuntary (it can occur without thinking). Breathing in mindfulness may involve controlled or delayed inhalation and exhalation, counting breaths, or simply focussing on breaths.
2) Acknowledging thoughts
Often done with the eyes closed while focussing on breathing, this aspect of mindfulness acknowledges that thoughts can and do wander throughout your mind. The trick is to accept that this occurs, let it happen without judging or suppressing those thoughts, and (depending on the technique), gently steering or returning your thoughts or focus.
3) Observation and awareness of external things
Often referred to as focussed mediation, the technique involves just that: focussing on something. The idea is to bring the mind to the present by focussing on the object at hand. For example, one technique involves looking at an object (it could be an orange, a pencil or a water bottle). Each time the mind ‘strays’ your attention is brought back to the present by way of focussing on the object.
Another technique involves listening to a sound or background music, whether it’s ambient traffic noise or the various sounds of water in the shower.
4) Awareness and immersion
As with other techniques, the intention here is to create awareness by focussing on present things, even if they are mundane or part of a routine. For example, by focussing on the sensation of walking (including the pressure on your heels and how your toes feel in your sock), thoughts can be brought back to the present.
The same can be done for almost any action, whether it’s doing the dishes, having a shower or preparing lunch. Actually ‘zone in’ and focus on every aspect of what you do as if it were a new experience: the physical movements right down to how you hold and manipulate objects in your hand, the sensation of things and temperature on your skin, your posture, the order in which you complete tasks, and so forth.
There are many more mindful relaxation techniques (one popular technique even involves tasting a sultana or raisin). As you’ve probably guessed, there is also a lot of cross-over between them.
It is also worth noting that mindfulness may not be appropriate therapy for everyone. For example, some vulnerable individuals with acute mental health conditions should see their GP or a mental health professional before starting a mindfulness programme.
Nonetheless, mindfulness is widely agreed to be a great tool that can help improve your mood, outlook, and assist with the management of common conditions like depression and anxiety.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.