Mindfulness is a type of meditation that’s said to enhance emotional well-being. It’s become extremely popular in recent years, with major companies such as Google, Goldman Sachs and General Motors encouraging its practice amongst their employees. NASA, the US Olympic team and the Navy SEALs are just three organizations said to use this type of meditation as part of their training. Mindfulness has also been promoted by celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Kobe Bryant and Emma Watson. So what exactly is mindfulness and how is it practiced? 

What exactly is mindfulness?

Worry and anxiety often enter our minds via thinking about what has happened in the past or what may happen in the future. Mindfulness is a way of controlling this type of instinctive, yet negative thinking. By being fully focused on the present moment, it means you are not thinking about the past or future and the worries or anxieties that may accompany this. As such, practiced regularly, mindfulness is said to have long-term benefits on how to cope with the stresses of everyday life.

What are the origins of mindfulness?

The name mindfulness is a translation of the Sanskrit word for remembrance or awareness. It’s known mostly as a form of Buddhist meditation but is also thought to date back to ancient Hindu traditions 2,500 years ago. It has gained popularity and recognition in recent times, most notably through Jon Kabat-Zinn who introduced the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts in the late 1970’s. Mindfulness has continued to grow in popularity, becoming an accepted part of modern-day psychology. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is the most recent innovation of this stress-reducing technique, building on work achieved with MBSR.

Who can benefit from practicing mindfulness?

Mindfulness can be beneficial to anyone wishing to reduce stress and worry. It’s particularly helpful for people suffering from psychological conditions such as severe anxiety, depression and addiction. It’s also thought to help with physical ailments such as heart disease, gastrointestinal problems and chronic pain. This is, in part, because those suffering from medical conditions like depression and physical pain are more prone to negative thoughts.

Mindfulness in more detail.

Without realizing it, at any given moment, the brain is a hub of hyperactive mental activity. Thoughts can be racing away in many different directions, making connections, one thought leading to another and another. Often these thoughts lead to possible negative scenarios or memories of past events that have caused worry, emotional or physical pain. Mindfulness stops that. It creates a barrier between those runaway thoughts and your consciousness. It makes you more aware that this type of negative thinking is there in the first place. By doing this and slowing thoughts down at a given time, it lets you take a moment to just be, to experience a present moment and nothing else. 

Mindfulness itself has also highlighted the strong connection between psychological problems and physical problems. In other words, how we think can have an effect on what we physically feel. This is why many people experiencing a condition such as chronic pain say practicing mindfulness helps them cope better with that pain.

Is there any scientific evidence mindfulness works?

There has been a number of controlled, scientific studies that have highlighted the positive effects of mindfulness. For example, a study by neuroscientists from Harvard University showed an eight-week program of mindfulness therapy produced changes in brain structure that were beneficial to patients. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, they revealed that participants practicing twenty seven minutes of mindfulness a day increased grey matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is associated with compassion, self-awareness and introspection. 

Meanwhile, the area of the brain that is associated with depression and anxiety, the amygdala, decreased in density. This made many patients more open to a positive way of thinking thus reducing stress, pain and/or depression. A similar study published in the British medical journal The Lancet concluded that MBCT was just as effective as drug treatment in preventing patients relapsing into depression. Mindfulness being a lot less expensive than medication means it’s both beneficial for patients and medical practitioners.

How do you practice mindfulness?

To begin the practice of mindfulness, find a quiet environment for yourself. Try to be as fully relaxed as you can be. Regulate your breathing. Become more aware of this breathing rhythm. As you breathe in and out, become aware of your senses. Don’t judge or think about them, just sense where you are in the present moment. Sense, for example, your body against the chair. The temperature of the room. Sounds you hear. What you smell. However, don’t let thoughts randomly enter your mind or wander off. Whenever you feel this is happening, bring your thoughts back to your breathing rhythm. Only sense that present moment where you’re practicing mindfulness. The aim here is to be in control of your thoughts, to make the present moment everything. Once you are only aware of the here and now, you are on your way to successfully practicing mindfulness.

Incorporating mindfulness into your daily life.

Although it can be helpful, it’s not necessary to be in a completely quiet environment to practise mindfulness. Once you learn the technique or, ideally, adapt a technique that’s best suited for yourself, you will be able to practice it almost anywhere. It could be while sitting on a bus or train, at work or during leisure time. Likewise, the amount of time a mindfulness session can last is up to you. For example, you could begin with short periods of around ten minutes a day and build up your time practicing mindfulness to forty minutes a day as you get used to it. 

The more you practice mindfulness, the more beneficial it can be. Mindfulness is not a miracle cure for a number of psychological or physical conditions. It is, however, recognized more and more as a very effective help to anyone who wishes to lead a more stress-free life.

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