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What is Mindfulness?

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Mindfulness is a term I’ve started coming across more and more often and although I have a rough idea of what I think it is, I thought I’d try to find out a bit more. 

So, what is mindfulness, how to do it and why bother?

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is essentially about being in the now and noticing things.  It’s about paying attention to things inside and outside of you, moment by moment, without passing any judgement, simply observing.  How does something taste, what does the air feel like against your skin as you breathe, what thoughts are in your head, what emotions do you feel, etc.  Mindfulness isn’t about controlling, changing or judging what you note, just observing. 

Most mindfulness focusses on the internal, especially your thoughts and feelings, with the idea that you can learn to understand yourself better and reconnect with yourself.  It’s too easy to exist in autopilot, especially when doing things we do often, but this can mean we miss things and we can get caught in thoughts that don’t help us.  With mindfulness, we can start to recognise thoughts and feelings that are not helpful, such as dwelling on things from the past or worrying about something in the future, and learn to bring ourselves back into the present so the thoughts don’t take over.  It can help create a space between unhelpful thoughts and how we react to them, whether that’s getting bogged down by them or the thoughts pushing us towards things like anger.

Mind (the charity, I’ve put links to useful websites at the bottom) says that through mindfulness we can become more self-aware, feel calmer and less stressed, learn to cope better with difficult or unhelpful thoughts, understand ourselves better and be kinder to ourselves. 

Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist and Hindu teachings as part of seeking enlightenment through meditation.  It came into the western world in the 1970s and has grown in popularity since then.  In a survey by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) in the USA found that the number of adults who said they practised some form of meditation, including mindfulness, tripled from 2012 to 2017.

How to do it?

How to be mindful is where a lot of information gets vague, which isn’t really helpful.  There are courses and apps, though mindfulness has been accused of over commercialisation and it does sometimes come across like a secret club.  There seems to be an impressive amount of information talking about what mindfulness is and how wonderful it is/might be, but very little saying how to start.

From what I’ve found, there are two approaches to mindfulness and the ideal seems to be to try to do both.  One is about noticing things as we go about our daily life and the other is closer to meditation by stopping for a moment to really focus.

Health Direct (from the Australian Health Service) suggests a few exercises for starting out.

  1. The 1 minute breathing exercise.  Sit with a straight back and relaxed.  Close your eyes.  For 1 minute, focus on your breathing.  How does the air feel?  How does your abdomen move?  Try to note the feelings, sensations and movements of your breathing as it happens.
  2. Self check in.  Ask yourself what’s going on with me at this moment.  Note whatever thoughts are in your head.  You can label the thoughts and feelings, such as ‘feeling a bit of anxiety’, ‘sadness’ or whatever you want to call them to help to recognise them. 
  3. Eat mindfully.  As you’re eating, focus on it.  Turn off the TV or put away your phone so you can concentrate.  How does the food smell, taste and look.  What are the movements and sensations of eating.  Eating mindfully can help to enjoy food more and also learn to recognise when we’re full

Mindfulness can be a bit difficult, especially at first.  It’s very easy for your mind to wander, though when it does it’s important to just note that it has and try to refocus, not judge.  It should get easier with practise though. 

Why bother?

According to the NHS, mindfulness can help with stress and anxiety.  They point out that NICE even recommend mindfulness-based therapies to help to treat mild depression.  A few sites do suggest mindfulness might not help everyone though. 

The NCCIH say that a lot of the research into potential benefits of mindfulness isn’t scientifically rigorous and often combines mindfulness with other techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy so it’s harder to quantify the benefit of mindfulness alone.  They suggest that mindfulness should help with depression, anxiety and stress, though these need more research to prove it.  Mindfulness may also help with blood pressure, pain, improving sleep quality/reducing insomnia, avoiding substance abuse relapses and PTSD, though all of these definitely need more research to prove for sure.  They suggest that if you’re already doing something that helps, keep it up, even if you choose to try mindfulness too.

Conclusion

Mindfulness is about awareness and attention to the present moment.  Learning to observe takes practise, but may make you better able to cope with things.

These are websites I found very helpful.  They all seem to try to be balanced and are not trying to sell anything.

Opinion

I’ve read a lot to write this post.  I must admit that at the start I wondered if mindfulness was just a gimmick and trendy.  Now I’m not so sure.  I think it may have benefits and I think I’m going to try to be a bit more aware, though I can’t see me signing up for any courses just yet.  It’s always hard when there’s an industry behind something to feel that you’ve got full and honest information. 

Do you find mindfulness helpful?  What exercises do you suggest for someone starting out?


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Dr Eleanor Rogerson founded Hobby Aids because she believes hobbies are good for you and limitations shouldn't stop doing what you enjoy. She is based in North Lincolnshire, UK.

Her background is chemistry, but after years in industry she wanted to work for herself and so went self-employed. During this time she mainly worked as a gardener. Recently she has been diagnosed with arthritis in her hands, which has caused her to discover the gap in the market to cater for hobbies for people with limitations.

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