Mindfulness. What is it and how can improve our mental health? Illumen’s Dr Amy Granberg on the benefits of this ancient practice.
Mindfulness practice can impact the way we respond to stress and regulate our emotions. Why is this? It’s likely you’ve heard of the term mindfulness, and perhaps know something about it, or have even given it a go? Mindfulness is a centuries old practice that grew out of Buddhist psychological theory. In the last few decades it has become integrated into western medical science and since then, thousands of empirical studies have been done purporting clinical benefits for a range of physical and mental health issues including chronic pain, stress, anxiety and depression.
So what is mindfulness? What does it mean to be mindful in daily life and what are the key ingredients for mental health and well-being? The Buddhist roots of mindfulness describe a system of training that leads to insight and overcoming suffering through focussing the mind to attend to the present moment in an attitude of openness and non-judgement. No easy task in a modern world full of distractions, to-do lists and critical minds. Judgement is a central part of being human, our minds love to categorise and compare. This is often useful but can be a recipe for perceived pressure and discontent.
So often in modern life, we can get caught up in emotional reactions to difficult situations and our behaviour at times can seem dictated by our emotions. Mindfulness provides a pathway to learn how to respond to our emotions and thoughts in a different way. Rather than being swept away by them, or fighting with them, we can learn to recognise and accept them for what they are; transient physical and mental events, rather than as enduring reflections of the self. In this way, mindfulness practice trains the mind to be less reactive to the challenges of day-to-day living and better able to focus on what is important.
Often emotions become problematic when we try and suppress them, or try to get rid of them using various avoidance strategies. Avoidance often works in the short term to reduce discomfort but can have long-term negative effects on health when the pattern of avoidance becomes inflexible and extensive. For many, having a glass of wine at the end of a particularly stressful day is considered acceptable but when using alcohol or other strategies to manage emotional discomfort becomes a regular pattern, we reduce our ability to process emotions effectively.
Mindfulness training will often begin with learning to restrict attention to a specific focus (such as the breath), and repeatedly return attention to this focus when distracted by thoughts or sensations. After some degree of attentional control is attained, mindfulness training proceeds to receptive practices involving non-judgemental observation of all sensations, thoughts and feelings as they arise. Learning to observe one’s moment by moment experience with acceptance rather than attempting to alter or control the experience is central to mindfulness training. Through mindfulness training we can develop new strategies for dealing with negative internal experiences when they show up so they no longer become triggers for avoidant behaviours. You can think about learning mindfulness as you would building physical fitness, it takes regular practice over time to become ‘mind fit’ so to speak. Equally, if you stop practicing regularly, your mind reverts to old patterns of responding.
It’s almost like learning a new language, you may have grown up speaking English, that’s what’s normal and natural for you. Then you begin to learn te reo Māori. The more you practice and speak te reo, the stronger those pathways in the brain get and the easier it is to communicate. While you can become fluent in te reo Māori, it’s always easy to revert back to English, so you have to keep the new language active in order to continue consolidating the new pathways you’ve made. In essence, mindfulness is a systematic training for the mind.