Mindfulness is a good therapeutic technique. It is recommended as a practice for people with mental ill-health as well as those who want to improve mental health and well-being. It boosts attention and concentration.
The Present Moment
Mindfulness is a way of being, a way of connecting to our life in the present moment which is the only time we are ever alive. It is the only time we can learn anything or express any kind of love or emotion. The only time we can be in our body, see, smell, hear, taste, touch or communicate is “now”.
Mindfulness is about living in the present moment, while observing our moods, thoughts, emotions and body sensations but without attaching or reacting to them. It is awareness of how we are and what is on our mind without interference. That is to say, without judgement, ruminating, catastrophizing or feeding ourselves negative thoughts and messages, while being compassionate towards ourselves. At the same time, acceptance is a way of relating to the experience that enables us to move forward with today and tomorrow.
The Practice of Mindfulness
Mindfulness involves returning your attention again and again to what is going on in the present moment. Your breathing is going on right now so, therefore, paying attention to your breath is a way of bringing yourself back to the here and now. This is not about breathing but using your breath as a focus of awareness. Other examples of bringing about awareness include focusing on your posture or paying attention to how you place your feet on the ground.
The mindfulness approach is about tolerating and accommodating our feelings rather than getting rid of unwanted ones. Awareness and toleration of feelings is very important in order to be able to get things done and achieve our purpose in life. Feelings are not easy to tolerate and we tend to want to avoid or escape them. The feelings in themselves cannot hurt us. It is what we do with them that cause us the most suffering. When a person is feeling vulnerable (primary suffering) and engages in negative thoughts, messages, ruminating etc. this will result in them becoming overwhelmed (secondary suffering). If a person can stay present to the primary suffering with compassion and without reaction or judgement, they can cultivate a more healthy relationship with their difficulties in life.
The Internal Critic
People are often tormented by thoughts that really don’t have a lot of substance. An individual thought does not last long, it will go and we need to be aware of this. However, the critic, that familiar entity in your mind, is continuously ready to attack. We need to change our relationship with thinking so that we no longer have to take seriously everything the mind tells us about others, the world and ourselves. We want to be able to see our thoughts from the outside, without automatically reacting as though they are always important and always there. Many of us speak more harshly to ourselves than we would ever speak to anyone else.
We would also say things to ourselves that we would never allow anyone else say. The critic, as we all know, is ever present. By helping us to spot the critic when it starts up, mindfulness offers us the opportunity to replace its harshness with compassion. Self-compassion can be like a friend who needs to tell you some plain truths but is careful to do so without crushing you. It’s easier to risk failure if you practice self-compassion because you know that whether you succeed or fail you will still be your friend.
Mindfulness affects our brain
Mindfulness changes brain patterns. It has been shown to affect how the brain works and even its structure. People undertaking mindfulness training have shown increased activity in the area associated with positive emotion – the pre-frontal cortex – which is generally less active in people who are depressed. The brain is constantly being re-shaped by our experiences and thoughts. The more we worry the better we become at worrying. However, when we practice mindfulness we learn to become calm, clear and focused and this strengthens these networks. It makes sense that it is important to practice mindfulness when we are feeling good and not just in a depressed, anxious or fearful state. This helps us to avoid relapse by keeping the amygdala, that is, the part of the brain involved in the processing and expression of emotions (especially anger and fear) calm and relaxed.
When the amygdala is activated and we are in fight, flight, freeze or faint mode, the rational mind is diminished and therefore, we see little or no solution. Mindfulness helps dampen down the effects of the amygdala and allows us to stay with the underlying emotion and not engage in self-triggering ruminating and negativity. It also means that we are less likely to be swept away by strong emotions and the power of the amygdala. We can bring choice to our emotions and our thoughts by being aware and accepting of them and in doing so we are playing an active role in changing the way the structure of the brain develops.
Fear can save lives so it is essential for survival. It can also be a deeply unpleasant feeling that overwhelms us in response to a perceived threat causing us to fight, flight, freeze or faint. This is usually the type of fear that we continually generate in our own minds through ruminating, catastrophizing and negative thinking. These messages are continually reinforcing the threat or danger. We create this intense energy in our bodies and alarm bells go off in our heads telling us we are in danger which, of course, is not the case. It is important that we learn to control our minds as opposed to our world which is, in many ways, out of our control.
Mindfulness helps us to acknowledge the fear by naming it. Taking deep breaths will allow us to slow the body down and to bring kindness and compassion to ourselves for being afraid.
According to Professor Mark Williams, who just retired from the Mindfulness Centre at Oxford University, mindfulness practice can reduce the relapse rate for depression. His theory is that when people have been depressed a number of times, their brains create a link between three features:
– a low mood
– very ruminative negative thinking
– physical fatigue
The key is stepping out of rumination and negative thinking which causes the fatigue. If the person can accept the presence of the low mood (which is probably a normal response to an experience) and acknowledge how they are feeling, with patience and compassion, the low mood will pass. Mindfulness takes practice and changing our way of being takes patience!