Mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular as more and more people are finding it helpful in preventing normal feelings of anxiety, stress and sadness from spiralling downwards into prolonged periods of unhappiness and exhaustion.
Numerous clinical studies have shown that regular mindfulness practice
- makes people more contented
- decreases anxiety, depression and irritability
- improves memory, reaction times, mental and physical stamina
- reduces chronic stress, hypertension, pain
- bolsters the immune system
- sustains better relationships
The descent into “emotional quicksand”
Mark Williams and colleagues, writing in The Mindful Way through Depression, refer to “emotional quicksand”, that is, the process by which struggling to be free of anxiety or unhappiness often makes it worse: the more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink. Mindfulness practice aims to stop the cascade of destructive emotions taking hold by just being with them, rather than struggling to work them out or avoid them.
The mind can do so much more than simply analyse a problem, it can be aware that it is thinking. This awareness is bigger than thinking; it allows you to step outside of the chattering negative self-talk and the accompanying unhelpful reactive impulses and emotions. Williams et al write: “The evidence is clear; brooding is the problem, not the solution. Pure awareness transcends thinking.”
The curse of stress
As children, and later as adults, we are encouraged to ‘soldier on’. We naturally assume that people will think the worst of us if we show we can’t cope. So we struggle on, getting more and more exhausted. As the stress builds up, we start to believe everything is our own fault and that it is our responsibility to sort it out for ourselves. So we work even harder.
Take, for example, the case of ‘Michael’. Whenever Michael’s mood began to sink, and he felt that the energy was draining out of him, he consciously adopted a strategy of giving up his ‘unimportant’ and ‘non-essential’ leisure activities, such as seeing friends or just going out and enjoying himself. As he saw it, this strategy made sense because it meant that he could focus his dwindling energies on his more ‘important’ and ‘essential’ commitments and responsibilities. This is understandable, except that his essential commitments included being the perfect professional, father and employee, and meeting all the demands and expectations of family, friends and colleagues, whether these were reasonable or not.
In giving up the ‘non-essential’ and ‘unimportant’ leisure activities that might have lifted his mood, and extended rather than depleted his reserves of energy, Michael deprived himself of one of his simplest and most effective strategies for feeling better.
What Michael was thinking was: “Stop the world, I want to get off!” With mindfulness, he could do just that.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention, on purpose and non-judgmentally, to the present moment. It is a vehicle for the development of self-awareness; for training attention and noticing and controlling where the mind goes and what follows.
Why does paying attention in this way help? Because it is the exact opposite of the continual worrying that brings us down. Judging and evaluating underpin feelings of ‘not measuring up’. Expectations of what we ought to be feeling or doing will habitually and automatically rear their old, familiar heads and cause us to feel frustrated. By simply noticing the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’, they can be put aside and lose their power.
Obviously, our busy lives will not allow us to be in a state of mindfulness for a lot of the time, but cultivating the ability to stay in the moment for short periods can break the cycle of unhelpful thinking and feeling. So, rather than be governed by our impish monkey mind, we can merely watch our thoughts as they go through our minds but not engage with them – rather like pretending thoughts are clouds and simply watch them drift across the sky.
How easy is it to learn to be mindful?
Like learning to run a marathon, it takes training, practice and commitment. The first steps, however, are amazingly simple. Start with exercises focusing intently on an object such as an apple or a stone for a couple of minutes, and then steadily build up to longer periods of focusing on one’s breath and body.
Within a short space of time the effect of using what Ruby Wax calls the “The Three Minute Calmer” can seem almost magical. This can provide a brief reprieve when the going gets tough, when the pressure of coping with change and unrealistic time-tables while trying to maintain a healthy work/life balance becomes overwhelming. It can make all the difference to confidence, effectiveness and general well-being.
Mindfulness helps me flourish
As a psychologist and therapist, mindfulness is my constant companion. For me, it has a very practical application in our modern stress-filled lives. I make it a part of my work with troubled and stressed clients. It maintains my well-being and reminds me to enjoy life – every single moment of it.
Williams et al, 2007, The Mindful Way through Depression, Guildford Press;
Williams and Penman, 2011, Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, Piaktus Press
Ruby Wax, 2016, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled
This article was previously published in “Flourish in the Desert”.
Ronnie Freeman is a Mindfulness Practitioner and certified Mindfulness Trainer. As a psychologist working in both private and public organisations, she is well placed to share her practical experience of how mindfulness can help individuals deal with the stresses of change and challenge at work and in their personal lives. She is the nominated trainer for APT (The Association for Psychological Therapies) for their programme of Mindfulness courses delivered throughout the UK.