Mindfulness – More than Simply Meditation
With a growing interest in using mindfulness as a complementary therapy to manage a range of physical and mental health problems, mindfulness is a word you hear mentioned increasingly often. However, unlike other techniques that promote healing such as acupuncture and massage, you can’t just book a session with a practitioner and expect to see results, as this therapy requires your active involvement. Before you can take advantage of this technique to benefit your health you therefore need to understand what it means to be mindful and how this approach works, as well as the pros and cons of taking part.
What Is Mindfulness?
When you are mindful it means you are aware of your thoughts, feelings and sensations within your body, as well as being aware of your surroundings, at a given moment. Another aspect of mindfulness is that although you acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, you do not pass judgment on them, so you accept the way that you think or feel. By practicing mindfulness you are able to tune into the present without thinking about the past or looking ahead to the future.
Mindfulness is an important concept in Buddhism. Within the Buddhist context mindful meditation has three main purposes, which are to know, train and free your mind:
- The first principle is to discover who you truly are, as it is very easy to get caught up with thoughts and activities without understanding your feelings, reactions and motivation. During this discovery of your mind it is important not to label anything as good or bad, or to try to change anything.
- It is then important to train your mind to take responsibility for its disposition and activity, allowing your mind to operate in a beneficial way. For instance, you can explore how to be kinder, more compassionate and more forgiving.
- Finally, you need to release those items you cling on to, whether desires, judgments or ideals, which you can do by freeing your mind.
Although these steps take time to learn, they support each other, as knowing yourself helps with training yourself and knowing what you need to release.
How Does Mindfulness Work?
Research supports the theory that mindfulness doesn’t just work through a single component, but a number of mechanisms interact to produce its benefits. The four main components at play are as follows:
- Attention regulation. This involves focusing on a given object and returning to this when distracted. It helps to remove memories and thoughts of the future.
- Body awareness. This involves focusing on an internal feature such as your breathing, emotions or another sensation within your body. As the name suggests, it helps to increase awareness of your body.
- Emotion regulation. This firstly involves accepting emotional reactions without judging them and then deliberately exposing yourself to a situation and avoiding a reaction. By doing so you are able to regulate your emotions in a positive way.
- Change in self perspective. This is where you detach from the idea that your sense of self is unchangeable, allowing you to bring about positive changes.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness can help us in a variety of ways, from enhancing physical and mental wellness to its social benefits. To date research shows that being mindful assists with the following:
- Firstly, when it comes to your physical wellness, adopting mindful eating can help you to make healthier choices, savor your food and gain control over your eating, which can all aid weight loss and prevent weight gain. With obesity a growing problem, this is welcome news.
- Analysis also shows that mindful meditation may reduce your risk of infections owing to its ability to boost your immune function.
- Looking to our brains, mindfulness promotes positive changes in areas of your brain that control memory and learning, as well as aiding your concentration.
- Being mindful also has a positive influence on your emotional well-being by reducing negative thoughts and emotions, while enhancing those that are helpful. Research even shows that mindfulness is a possible treatment for depression, which may prove as effective as antidepressants and reduce the risk of relapse. There is additional evidence that practicing this technique during pregnancy may reduce antenatal depression, anxiety and stress, and it also appears a valuable therapy for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
- When you are mindful this is good for your relationships, as the relaxation and optimism that it brings helps you to feel closer to loved ones.
- Additionally, mindfulness training makes you more compassionate and more likely to show altruism, as it helps you to better understand others, so you are likely to help them when in need.
- Mindfulness doesn’t just benefit adults though, as children and adolescents can benefit from this training in the classroom. This is particularly the case if pupils are disruptive, display aggressive behavior or struggle to concentrate.
- Finally, inmates may have more success with rehabilitation and reintegration when mindful therapies are on offer. Indeed, when prisoners are more aware of their thoughts and feelings, they are less likely to display anger, hostile behavior and suffer from low mood.
The Downsides of Mindfulness
As with any form of therapy, there are disadvantages of using mindfulness. However, when you receive proper instruction in how to be more mindful, so you are aware when it is appropriate to use this technique and how to use it to greatest effect, you are less likely to run into difficulties.
For instance, mindful meditation is sometimes used by people who suffer from chronic pain, as increased awareness of your body aids relaxation, relieving muscle tension and pain. However, some patients find that by increasing their self awareness, they become all too aware of their discomfort and their suffering is overwhelming. Without expert guidance it is all too easy for this to arise, but a therapist who specializes in mindfulness can help you reset the balance of your body awareness and offer guidance on pain management.
There is also evidence that adopting mindful practices may hinder creativity by blocking your mind’s ability to wander. It is therefore important to set a healthy balance between mindfulness and letting your mind wander. A further concern is that mindfulness may stand in the way of developing new habits or skills that do not require conscious awareness, so again it is a case of identifying whether being mindful is appropriate in a given situation.