What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is conscious of what is taking place in your environment, your thoughts, feelings and sensations in your body, in the present moment, without judging yourself or the situation. Mindfulness is not part of any religion; it does not require unique clothes or equipment. You do not have to clear your mind, have an empty mind to be mindful, or sit for hours a day humming ‘om.’ You can be mindful in different ways, and later in this article, I shall get you started by introducing some mindfulness exercises. Much of the suffering you experience results from how your mind works. If you let your mind do as it pleases, it focuses more on adverse events and overestimates danger, Practising how to stand back from your thought processes, look at them, and not judge or overreact to them is a valuable skill known as mindfulness. Choosing to come out of autopilot and watch what happens in your mind and learn to detach from it is being mindful of your thoughts. This skill, along with understanding how your mind and emotions work, can ease much of your suffering. Mindfulness can help with anxiety
, panic disorder
and is part of some therapy models, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Why do you suffer?
There are two significant reasons for suffering.
- When you ruminate over past events or imagine the future negatively, or
- When you are experiencing something painful right now.
Ruminating over the past or imagining worse-case scenarios can make you suffer.
Many things that can upset you have already occurred and are in the past. Your mind brings them to life by reliving them and dwelling on past adverse events. Other reasons for distress exist only in your imagination as they have not happened yet, and most likely will not happen. However, still, your mind drifts into all worse-case scenarios and can predict your future negatively. A few days ago, a neighbour died following an accident. Since then, I have thought about deaths that affected me. I acutely feel the pain and remember what I was doing and how it affected me. I practice mindfulness in my personal life, and when I catch these thoughts, I practice mindfulness; I observe my thought processes and rather than getting caught up in the thought, I tell myself; I am having thought about a loved one and leave it at that. This does not mean that I am dismissing thoughts about a loved one. Rather, it means that I have observed a thought as it came into my mind, noted and named it, and moved on. I can remember pleasant, loving things; I do not have to dedicate so much time to the event of death when I have a lifetime of pleasant memories that are much more rewarding and accurate than our time together to think about.
Next time you notice a dip in your mood, ask yourself what is going on with your thought processes. Observe them and tell yourself I have a thought about (whatever the content of your thoughts are).
Once you come out of autopilot and pay attention to your thoughts, you see that your mind bounces from one thought to another with no effort or little control. Your thoughts reflect whatever emotion you are experiencing, as in my example above, when I experienced sadness at the sudden death of a neighbour. You also notice that your mind can take this further by getting lost in regrets, adverse events, and worry. Coming out of autopilot and paying attention to what is happening in your start of practising mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you stand back from your thoughts, stopping your random thoughts and fuelling more uncomfortable emotions. Because of a human phenomenon known as the negativity bias, the sudden death of my neighbour caused me to dwell on death, which quickly brought to mind more personal painful memories of death. The negativity bias is where we dwell more on negative things than positive ones.
If you police your thought processes, you notice that many thoughts that linger (and you did not invite them into your mind) are harmful or hurtful. If you don’t believe me, try this out. You have just come out of an interview for your dream job, and I say either;
You will have done great. You were so well prepared, and I hope you get the news you want. You have no chance of getting that job. You are way too stupid and a fool for even attending an interview; I bet they are laughing at you right now. Which will have the most significant impact on you, and which will you remember and mull over later this evening? I am sure you would not spend hours analysing. She said I’ve done well. Instead, you could spend hours or weeks reviewing what she said I was stupid and getting laughed at. What does she know? I hate her! If you were mindful and my insulting comment popped into your mind uninvited, you could observe the thought and mentally note I am having a thought about what Elaine said to me and bring your attention back to what you were doing. You may experience a powerful pull to judge the comment, yourself, or me. Mindfulness does not apply judgement. If you could practise not judging your thought processes, you would not have to re-experience the initial statement’s pain.
How mindfulness helps
If you can bring your attention to what is happening now, you might discover that you are okay. Right, this very second, you are reading words I have written. If you can expand your attention to your environment, are you outside or at home, is it hot or cold? What do you hear? If you can do this, you are mindful. Bringing your attention to what is going on now takes you out of the troublesome thoughts in your head and eases the distress created by your mind wandering into the past or future.
Yes, but what if what is happening to me now is not nice?
All of us are living through COVID-19; if you are unwell, bereaved, lost your job or experiencing some other personal loss, mindfulness will not change this reality, but developing a meditative practice can help you cope with your current experience by teaching you to self soothe, lower stress and be more compassionate towards yourself. Research has shown a 20-minute introduction to mindfulness help participants to reduce their experience of pain and regulate negative emotions.1
How can it help?
If something unpleasant happens in your life, mindfulness can help ease the pain. It cannot make the unpleasant event disappear, but it will help you cope most helpfully rather than avoid what is happening and help you move on when the time is right. If something painful is occurring now, it is helpful to note the following points; Your mind will want to keep focusing on the negative aspects, and Your mind will want to avoid unpleasant emotions. We have a natural tendency to move toward pleasure and run from pain; for some people, this can lead to unhelpful coping strategies, such as drinking too much to avoid dealing with what is happening. You might also find that you tend to push away painful thoughts and feelings or use coping skills such as alcohol to avoid pain. Understanding how emotions work combined with a mindfulness practice can help you with this. You can mindfully navigate your experience without trying to change what is happening or push away unpleasant emotions, or mask them by using, for example, alcohol or avoidance. If you are currently experiencing powerful, upsetting emotions, you must understand how emotions affect your thoughts and actions. Suppose I return to my example of the accidental death of a neighbour that resulted in me focusing on more personal bereavements. The emotion I experienced was sadness. This powerful feeling of sadness could colour everything that I was doing. I might not want to go for that walk. As I was feeling sad, my thought processes would be more likely to relate to death or other things that fit with the feeling of sadness. I could cope with this by locking myself away, not wanting to do things I usually do or drink (although I am tee-total!) This would happen on autopilot as I got swallowed up by thoughts and feelings. Using mindfulness, I can observe and note what is happening to me but tell myself I have thought about bereavement. If I can carry out what I had planned to do, wish was to go for a walk, I can undertake my walk mindfully, which means paying attention to what is around me. Is it hot or cold, leaves falling off trees, as it is the beginning of November, or how is my dog behaving? This is not ignoring bereavements, rather it is paying attention to what is real in my life this second, and more often than not, it is okay. In doing this, I can self-soothe the pain I previously felt. I did not dismiss it, did not change it, and can now soothe and calm the mind.
How to learn to label your thoughts.
In my example, where I had been thinking about bereavements, I was labelling my thoughts by saying, ‘there is a thought about a loved one.’ In doing so, I was not getting caught up in thoughts that randomly popped into my mind, but I also was not ignoring or pushing them away. When you notice a change in your mood, check where your thoughts are and observe and label them. For example, if you are worrying, mentally note ‘there is a worrying thought’ and bring your attention back to whatever you are doing. This is hard and first, but you can try the following mindfulness exercise that should help.
How to focus on your breathing.
At the risk of sounding like a cliche, your breath is a beautiful tool, and you always have it with you when you need it. If I find it hard to get out of my thoughts, I spend a few minutes focusing on my breathing, as this not only refocuses my mind, it also calms me down. Take five minutes and notice your breath. Please don’t change it; notice in, out, in, out. Your mind will wander (possibly back to your worries), and that’s okay; bring your mind back to in, out, in, out. Many people find it difficult to meditate or use guided relaxation when anxious. Maybe you have tried it and decided it is no good, does not work for you, or avoids it altogether. Meditation makes me focus more on my body and makes me feel worse.
Meditation will make you more aware of your body; this is true as you will focus on your body. Does it make you feel worse or more aware of what you are feeling in your body?
Being aware of what you are feeling in your body may temporarily heighten your feelings, depending on how you focus your attention. If you are trying to meditate and realise your heart beating fast, you may panic, causing your heart to beat faster. You might worry that you will feel worse or have a panic attack. You may then avoid meditation altogether, believing it makes you feel worse. Does avoiding meditation make you feel worse or better in the long run?
Short term, you might feel better and stop focusing on your body. Long term, you are not helping yourself because:
How to meditate, even when anxious.
- Avoiding uncomfortable situations and feelings is a coping mechanism that works great in the short term but hurts you in the long run.
- If you cope with anxiety by avoiding things, this will keep your anxiety going.
- You will not get the benefits of meditation, which will relax your mind and body.
It will help you not run from uncomfortable sensations or experiences, as your brain will quickly learn that you are safe and, therefore, not give you anxiety when you do not need it. Let go of judgemental thoughts.
When you feel your body more anxious, try not to judge your thoughts (this is making me worse etc.) These judgements make you more anxious. Just notice what you are feeling; describe it to yourself. Start slowly
with only a few minutes and build up your practice.
Hedy Kober, Jason Buhle, Jochen Weber, Kevin N Ochsner, Tor D Wager. Let it be: Mindful-acceptance down-regulates pain and negative emotion. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 27 January 2020; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsz104