What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a practice that is used to draw your focus to the present, helping you to appreciate the moment and be aware of what is going on in your mind.
Mindfulness involves paying attention to the sensations around you, and calmly acknowledging the thoughts and feelings that pass through your mind.
Many people use mindfulness to help reduce unnecessary stress or worries, or to help them focus. Practising mindfulness has been shown to have a range of positive effects on physical and mental wellbeing.1,3–7
What does mindfulness involve?
Mindfulness is all about keeping your mind in the present.
As busy people, we tend to rush through certain daily activities, such as brushing our teeth or ironing our clothes. Mindfulness encourages us to be in the moment and appreciate all the sensations, thoughts and feelings we experience during these activities.
Mindfulness involves being aware of your surroundings and what your senses are picking up, such as:
- The sound of leaves rustling
- The taste of your coffee
- The smell of the rain or
- The feel of the cool breeze on your skin
Mindfulness is not about clearing your mind, rather it is about being aware of thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they enter your mind. By being aware of your thoughts and feelings, you can consider that some are not important or relevant to the present, and you can choose to let them go.
Where did mindfulness come from?
The basics of mindfulness go back to early Buddhist teachings. While the practice of mindfulness has been modernised over time, the main concepts of being aware of your body and the sensations around you remain the same.
How does mindfulness work?
Mindfulness works by training your brain to be more present in the here and now.
Research suggests that teaching yourself mindfulness can actually change your brain and the way it handles information and emotions.
A group of people were asked to take part in an 8-week mindfulness course. At the end of the course, the researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look at the brains of the study participants. Changes were seen in areas of the brain related to:
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Mindfulness has been shown to help people with a wide range of physical and mental health problems, including:
Myths about mindfulness
There are some common misunderstandings about what mindfulness is and who can benefit from it.
Although mindfulness has Buddhist roots, modern-day mindfulness does not rely on any religious beliefs or practices. People of all religious backgrounds can practise mindfulness.
The point of mindfulness is not about switching off your mind, it is about being aware of the thoughts and feelings inside your mind. If thoughts and feelings occur, you can decide if they are helpful thoughts, or unhelpful distractions, then let them go to bring your focus back to the here and now.
One of the benefits of mindfulness is improving focus and concentration, but that doesn’t mean you have to be good at concentrating to practise mindfulness.
Mindfulness is about acknowledging distractions and letting them pass, so you can come back to the present. As you practise mindfulness, not giving in to distractions will become easier.
Mindfulness is for everyone. Although research shows that using mindfulness can be helpful for people who have mental or physical health conditions, mindfulness has also been shown to have a range of general benefits through improving sleep, reducing stress and generally improving quality of life.3,6
Mindfulness vs. meditation
Some people class mindfulness as a type of meditation, whilst others consider it to be a separate practice. Although the classification of mindfulness is not hugely important, there are some differences between traditional meditation and mindfulness that may be useful to know:
What are the different types of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is not officially divided into types, but there are many different ways you can practise mindfulness.
Depending on your own lifestyle and preferences, you may choose to:
- Practice mindfulness during your daily activities
- Set aside specific time to practise mindfulness exercises, or
- Take part in a more structured mindfulness programme
There are many parts of daily life that we skim through without truly being present in the moment. You can practise mindfulness during these simple daily activities, by focusing on the sensations, thoughts or feelings you experience while you do them.
For example, you may choose to practise mindfulness while you are:
- Watching the scenery on your commute to work
- Taking a hot shower
- Preparing and eating a meal
- Brushing your teeth
- Listening to music
Some people may prefer to set aside time dedicated to mindfulness. Certain mindfulness exercises or activities that you may find helpful are:
Leave your phone at home, or keep it in your pocket. Focus on the sensations around you as you walk, and how your body feels with each step. Acknowledge thoughts or feelings that come into your head, and then let them go.
Find somewhere comfortable to sit. Relax your muscles and lean back into your seat. Acknowledge how comfortable and supported you feel. Carefully control your breathing using a breathing technique, such as the Box Breathing technique (see the video below). Focus on how the air feels filling your lungs, and the sensations around you.
Box Breathing technique:
Through a simple internet search, you can find many different breathing techniques to choose from. Make sure to pick the one that is the right for you.
This technique involves focusing on how your body is physically feeling. Sit somewhere comfortable and close your eyes. Keeping your breathing controlled, start at your toes and “scan” up your body, noticing the sensations you feel in each part of your body, such as the weight of your body against the chair or the feeling of the fabric against your skin.
Mindfulness can also be practised through a structured programme with a therapist, known as mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs). MBIs are used by some therapists to treat conditions such as anxiety and depression.3 Please check with your local health care provider to see if these programmes are available in your area.
There are many resources available that can help guide you through various mindfulness exercises, and teach you techniques to help you achieve a state of mindfulness.
- Instructional videos
- Mindfulness apps
- Instructional books
- Online programmes/courses
- Structured therapy programmes delivered in person
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- Keng SL, Smoski MJ, Robins CJ. Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: a review of empirical studies. Clin Psychol Rev. 2011;31(6):1041-1056. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2011.04.006 (Access here)
- Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011;191(1):36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006 (Access here)
- Hofmann SG, Gómez AF. Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Anxiety and Depression. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2017;40(4):739-749. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2017.08.008 (Access here)
- Xue J, Zhang Y, Huang Y. A meta-analytic investigation of the impact of mindfulness-based interventions on ADHD symptoms. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019;98(23):e15957. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000015957 (Access here)
- Luken M, Sammons A. Systematic Review of Mindfulness Practice for Reducing Job Burnout. Am J Occup Ther. 2016;70(2):7002250020p1-7002250020p10. doi:10.5014/ajot.2016.016956 (Access here)
- Rusch HL, Rosario M, Levison LM, et al. The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2019;1445(1):5-16. doi:10.1111/nyas.13996 (Access here)
- O'Reilly GA, Cook L, Spruijt-Metz D, Black DS. Mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviours: a literature review. Obes Rev. 2014;15(6):453-461. doi:10.1111/obr.12156 (Access here)
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