In recent years we’ve come to realise that good mental health is as important and good physical health, and the two are often linked.
One term we regularly hear in connection with positive mental health is “mindfulness”, but what is it and how can it help us?
In the simplest terms, mindfulness is living in the present moment, being aware of and paying attention to our own thoughts and feelings and the world around us. Most of the information below is taken from the NHS UK website and specifically its ‘Moodzone’ section, which can be accessed by clicking here.
Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment: “It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us,” he says. “It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour.
“An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of a banister as we walk upstairs.
“Another important part of mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment. It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.”
Developing mindfulness won’t happen overnight; it takes time to break free of old habits and become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and the world around you. You might find there are mindfulness classes in your area – try searching online or inquiring at your local library or medical centre. There are also various books and DVDs available, but you could try the following tips to get you started.
Notice the everyday: “Even as we go about our everyday lives,” advises Prof. Williams, “we can notice the sensations of things, the food we eat, the air moving past the body as we walk. All this may sound very small, but it has huge power to interrupt the ‘autopilot’ mode we often engage day to day, and to give us new perspectives on life.”
Keep it regular: It can be helpful to pick a regular time each day to focus on being mindful, perhaps the journey to work, a walk at lunchtime or a quiet time in the evening. Taking this time to practise and develop your mindfulness will help change your outlook through other parts of the day.
Try something new: Trying new things can help you notice and experience the world in a new way, seeing things afresh which you might have taken for granted. It could be as simple as sitting in a different place, exploring somewhere new, trying new food or breaking a routine that has become a rut.
Watch your thoughts: "Some people find it very difficult to practice mindfulness,” warns Prof. Williams. “As soon as they stop what they’re doing, lots of thoughts and worries crowd in. It might be useful to remember that mindfulness isn’t about making these thoughts go away, but rather about seeing them as mental events.
“Imagine standing at a bus station and seeing ‘thought buses’ coming and going without having to get on them and be taken away. This can be very hard at first, but with gentle persistence it is possible. Some people find that it is easier to cope with an over-busy mind if they are doing gentle yoga or walking.”
Free yourself from the past and future: You can practise mindfulness anywhere, but it can be especially helpful to take a mindful approach if you realise that, for several minutes, you have been ‘trapped’ in reliving past problems or ‘pre-living’ future worries.
As well as practising mindfulness in daily life, it can be helpful to set aside time to clear your mind and focus on a more formal mindfulness session. ‘Mindfulness meditation’ involves sitting silently and paying attention to thoughts, sounds, the sensations of breathing or parts of the body, bringing your attention back whenever the mind starts to wander or be distracted by everyday worries or concerns.
Just as mental and physical health go hand-in-hand, so a physical activity can help you to develop mindfulness. Two common examples are yoga and tai-chi, which both help you develop awareness of your body, especially breathing. However, other activities, such as swimming or going for a walk somewhere peaceful can also work – whatever helps you clear your mind and focus on the here and now.
• You can try an online mindfulness course by clicking here to visit the BeMindful website run by respected UK charity the Mental Health Foundation. It will also tell you more about mindfulness and help you find a registered teacher in your area.