Mindfulness is one of those buzzwords that we hear a lot about, but what does it mean?
According to John Kabat Zinn, mindfulness means paying attention in the present moment, to things as they are, non-judgementally. In more simple terms, it’s about being in the moment you are in, without being lost in what you did earlier, or what you think you should be doing. It’s about engaging all of your senses in that moment, so noticing sights, smells, sounds. It's about stepping out of your thoughts and back into your body, being aware of emotion, sensation and doing this without judging what we become aware of.
Linehan breaks mindfulness down into the ‘what’ we do in mindfulness, outlining skills of ‘observe’, ‘describe’ and ‘participate’. By observe, we notice what is going on in us and around us – we step out of autopilot and ask ourselves what we are feeling. It's a little bit like the guard at the palace gates – a calm and alert awareness to what is going on. We might then describe our experience, putting into words what we notice, so, ‘I notice I am thinking…’ and ‘I notice I am feeling…’. Participating means taking part, joining in and being totally aware when taking part in an activity.
And we attempt to do these things non-judgementally. Judgement is one of our bugbears, as we spend so much time judging ourselves, others and the world around us. We need judgement to safely navigate the world (judging distance, risks etc.), but what use is self-judgement? Self-judgement lowers our mood as it compares us against another person or ideal, outlining how we ‘should’ be and berating ourselves for what we are not. This isn’t to say we can’t have an opinion on things, but the pejorative, damaging nature of judgement is what crushes self-belief, colours our own experiences, and brings about negative emotions. Oh and it’s not effective in bringing about change.
So why mindfulness?
Mindfulness can help us concentrate and focus easier, as with practice (and more practice) it builds up our ability to direct and control our mind. Through practising ‘bringing the mind back to the present’ when it wanders or becomes distracted, we become more able to do that in our everyday lives. This also helps us manage situations in a calmer way as if we can find our present moment to come back to, we are more able to think clearly, drawing on our emotions alongside our rational mind.
With problems in our everyday life, we are used to being at A (when we want to be at B) and using logic, careful analysis and problem solving to get there. However emotional issues aren’t like everyday puzzles – they can’t be easily understood or rationalised away. We might, for example have a goal to feel ‘happy’, however this drive for happiness creates rumination, frustration and unhelpful patterns of thinking, which include comparison, judgement, and ‘I shoulds’. We can’t make ourselves feel a different emotion sometimes, even if we think we should logically.
Here is where mindfulness gives us an alternative – it doesn’t ask us to problem solve away emotional issues, nor to change it, but just to notice it and let it change at its own pace. It attempts to draw us back to the moment so we are less likely to cling tightly to the issue, or avoid it completely, but to notice it without judgement. It’s not a problem solving technique, but a different way of ‘being’ where we let go of the need to instantly solve the issue, and take time out from our goal orientated, competitive mental patterns,
Mindfulness approaches teach people to pay attention to every moment as it happens, using techniques such as meditation and breathing, to prevent rumination about the past or future. It allows them to let go of negative thoughts which may tip them over the edge into depression. It also helps people to become in tune with their own bodies; helping to identify change in mood, spikes in emotion, negative thoughts and pain, which we will all experience. This is alongside a greater acceptance of thoughts, feelings and self overall, leading to increased self-esteem.
Another useful aspect is the fact that Mindfulness-based therapy is now scientifically proven to help those who experience depression, anxiety and insomnia. It has also been recommended by the National Institute for Clinical and Health Excellence (NICE) as an effective treatment for people who have recurrent episodes of depression. Extensive clinical trails have also demonstrated that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is more effective than a maintenance dose of antidepressants in preventing relapse in depression!
So how can we be more mindful?
Informal mindfulness – A useful way to help develop your ability to be mindful, is through doing everyday activities mindfully. Set yourself a daily task, such as an activity in your morning routine, and commit to doing it mindfully. Observe what you are doing within the activity (e.g. cleaning teeth) and try and notice with all your senses what you are doing, gently noticing when your mind wonders or makes judgements, and simply coming back to the activity on noticing it has wandered. In reality, you will notice your mind wander many times (even in a short 3 minute practice) but it is the practice that counts. Do this every day and you will begin to notice a change in your ability to draw your mind back when it goes elsewhere.
Formal mindfulness – Apps like ‘Headspace’ have formal, directed meditations for you to follow. This often feels more manageable at first as you are reminded to gently draw your mind back when it wonders, to notice judgements and to be in the present. These apps have handy reminders to remind you to do your practice too!
Join us – We offer individual mindfulness sessions in Guildford and Godalming. You can join our Mummas Mindfulness groups in Guildford which are a mix of informal and formal exercises. The course is 6 weeks of sessions to teach you how to BE mindful. It’s not about simply teaching you the theory behind it (as we can learn that from a book). We develop your mind muscle (a bit like exercising at the gym!) as the more you practice using the muscle, the stronger it will be. You will find that the more you practice, the more you are able to pay attention nonjudgmentally. There are real benefits to physical and emotional wellbeing and it even helps with management of pain and sleep issues! We have an Early bird price for our course starting in April. If you are interested, drop us a message or book here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/mummas-mindfulness-6-week-course-tickets-43511744800
Dr Jo Gee
Mummas Wellbeing - is a specialist mums wellbeing service, in Surrey, UK. We offer Arvigo, hypnobirthing, counselling, psychotherapy, nutritional therapy, massage, mindfulness, osteopathy, physiotherapy, pilates, postnatal doula and reflexology for women through fertility, pregnancy, the postnatal period and parenting.
Tel: 07933 343180