There are many explanations of mindfulness out there. But most agree on the following:
Mindfulness is an increasing awareness of the current moment, without judging it, or the way it is being experienced as right or wrong.
Common misconceptions about mindfulness
A commonly held misconception about mindfulness is that in order to practice it, you have to be able to clear your mind of any thoughts. This is very difficult for many people, which can lead to them feeling disappointed or like they have “failed” when they have passing thoughts.
Another misconception is that to be mindful means you must find the time each day to meditate. Whilst many people do set aside time to meditate and bring mindfulness into that meditation, it is not necessary. You can practice mindfulness in short, unplanned breaks from your day, or whilst you are performing routine tasks.
How mindfulness can help lift your mood
Mindfulness’s non-judgmental focus acts as a reprieve from the over analysis of thought. Overthinking is a common trait in anxiety, stress, OCD and depression. A thought appears and then that thought is appraised and (if it is deemed correct), expanded upon.
For example, someone may think “I completely messed up that project, now my boss is going to want to fire me.”. As many people tend to accept negative thoughts as true unquestioningly. This original thought could easily lead to a period of overthinking, where the person continues to focus on the negative experience, feeling worse as a result.
When battling with depression, we are taught to challenge these kinds of negative automatic thoughts. This helps us because it forces us to question the truth of the thought and see ourselves in a more neutral rather than negative way.
Whilst challenging these thoughts is important, it isn’t easy to do it all the time. It requires a conscious effort and (often) quite some time to think through the legitimacy of each thought.
In contrast to challenging negative thoughts, mindfulness teaches us to neither accept the thought as true or false. It is simply a passing thought, and has no bearing on reality.
In mindfulness, because the thought is not appraised as right or wrong, it requires no further exploration. It can simply come and go as easily as our breath comes and goes.
Although the method is different to challenging negative thoughts, the effect is somewhat similar in that it helps prevent overthinking and a downward mental spiral.
How mindfulness can help increase focus
How long is your attention span? Chances are, it isn’t going to be particularly long. Don’t worry, you are not alone in that. Generally speaking, we are becoming increasingly used to constant stimulation, making focusing for any length of time difficult.
In fact, if you have read all of this article so far, you may have an above average attention span! A lot of people simply scan read and focus on headings, absorbing the most relevant information to them in the shortest amount of time.
There is nothing wrong with scan reading articles. But when the inability to focus causes difficulties at school, university, or work, it can make life more difficult. We are more likely to feel bored, find that tasks take longer and feel less content.
Struggling with a lack of focus is likely to be more of a problem if you also have a condition which affects your executive function. People who have these conditions may consider themselves to be neurodivergent, meaning they process the world differently to others.
Mindfulness can help train your brain to more easily focus on tasks. Increased focus often results in better and quicker outcomes, helping you to achieve and feel a sense of accomplishment.
How mindfulness can combat stress
A focus on “now”
As mindfulness slows down thoughts and directs focus towards the current moment rather than the past or future, it can help bring about a sense of calm and alleviate stress.
Thinking about the future is useful in the right amount as we can run scenarios and work out a way forward out of our current situation. When we are stressed, it is natural to think to the future a lot (but this often has a negative filter). This overly pessimistic view of the future can make our mood worse.
We can also find ourselves thinking about the past, drawing on our previous experiences to validate the negative way we feel at the current moment. Thinking in terms of the past and future and not on the present moment can make it difficult to see that there can be times where we do not feel stressed. The past looks bleak, as does the future.
By focusing on the moment as it is, we temporarily put a hold on everything that is outside of our immediate experience. The past and future cannot be stressful in that moment, because they are inconsequential to the current moment. This brief focus on the here and now can be enough to provide clarity and calm during stressful life events.
Controlling the fight flight response
A common practice in mindfulness is to focus on breathing. By focusing on breathing and breathing more deeply and slowly we can actually manipulate our mind into believing we are much calmer than we are. Although breathing differently isn’t essential for mindfulness, it can help increase the anti-stress effects of practicing it.
Breathing deeply and slowly helps to trigger our parasympathetic nervous system (the system that tells us we are safe) and suppress our sympathetic nervous system (the system that prepares us to respond to danger). Believe it or not, in this way we can actually “hack” our brains and, through practice, learn to stay much calmer in all stressful situations.
Not all guides to mindfulness encourage deliberately slowing down your breathing. Whilst some will encourage it, others simply suggest you notice your current breathing. If you decide to give mindfulness a go, you can try both options and discover which one works best for you.
Suitability of mindfulness for those with mental illness
As mentioned above, mindfulness can have many positive benefits, helping decrease overthinking, increase focus, and relieve stress.
However, some studies have shown that it is possible to have a negative response to mindfulness. Becoming more aware of bodily sensations can be a trigger for people who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Additionally, even though they understand the concept of not judging thoughts and letting them pass, some people struggle to do this. Instead, they become drawn into overthinking which could make them feel worse than they did before.
In instances where it is likely that mental illnesses could worsen when beginning mindfulness, it is recommended that mindfulness be learnt in the presence of a trained professional.
A mindfulness coach or a counsellor trained in mindfulness should be able to provide support with any flashbacks, disassociation, or worsening of negative thinking. They should be able to teach mindfulness in a way that is safe.
It is important that if you are looking for a professional to guide you in mindfulness and have existing mental health issues that you ask questions to gage their experience handling some of the possible negative effects, before agreeing to sessions with them.
Mindfulness as meditation
Mindfulness and meditation are not the same, despite often sharing similar methods. In some forms of meditation, the mind is allowed to wander freely, and in others there is a focus on repeating a certain phrase or mantra and focusing on that.
The practice of mindful meditation describes a person choosing to take time out of their day to meditate. They will do so by focusing primarily on their breath and their experience in the here and now. Whilst they will have thoughts, they aim to allow them to pass, without judgement and without becoming drawn into exploring them further.
Mindfulness meditation is an active practicing of focus. It helps to strengthen the resolve to resist overthinking and increases the ability to pull yourself back to a task after being distracted.
People may choose to meditate mindfully for anything from 5 minutes to hours at a time. But most start with just a short amount of time, and build themselves up gradually as the practice makes focusing easier.
Mindfulness as a way of being
Mindfulness is something which can be applied during day-to-day life. Whilst it may become easier to do with practice (in the form of meditation), it isn’t essential to meditate in order to incorporate mindfulness into your way of life.
Focusing on the here and now experience can be done at any time of the day. You could be present and focused on the way you are walking, what’s around you, what holding an object feels like, or even what you are eating.
The key is to choose one thing to focus on in whatever you are doing and keep returning to that. As with mindful meditation, there should be no judgement, no “right” or “wrong” kinds of thoughts or experiences whilst you are being mindful.
Mindful eating is an interesting form of mindful living which has been attributed to helping people maintain a healthy weight. Eating mindfully means the person is more likely to notice when they are full, and stop as a result.
Being mindful in everyday life can increase awareness and contentedness in the current moment. For instance, lying in a warm bath is unlikely to be relaxing if your mind is racing with thoughts of what you “should” be doing afterwards.
But if you focus on the warmth on your skin, the scent of the air, or the sensation of your breath, you are more likely to enjoy the experience and find it soothing.
Focusing on your senses or movement could be deemed “focused meditation” or even “movement meditation” rather than mindfulness in daily life. But there is a blurry line between the two as mindfulness in daily life requires intention, just like meditation through the senses and movement.
Resources and support for mindfulness
There is lots of information about mindfulness online. There are also many guides and tools to help you get to grips with mindful meditation. Hopefully this article has acted as a sufficient introduction to mindfulness, but if you are interested, then you may find it helpful to read more.
Information about mindfulness and meditation
To expand your knowledge about the differences between mindfulness and meditation, you could read this article. Or if you would like an overview of some of the different forms of meditation, check out this article.
Guides to meditation
The mindful.org website offers a guide to basic mindful meditation. It also offers guides to slightly different forms of meditation such as those which include visualisation and the repeating of a phrase (although it does refer to these as mindful meditations also).
Whatever the format and the source, most seem to incorporate some basic steps.
- Choose a quiet place and a comfortable position.
(This could be sitting or lying, whichever you prefer.)
- Breathe in and notice the effect this has on your body.
- Breathe out and notice the effect this has on your body.
- Continue to focus on your breath.
- If your mind wanders, accept that it has happened, and return your focus back to your breath without judging yourself for being distracted.
- Begin by doing this for 5 minutes at a time, (you can gradually build up to longer sessions).
There are lots of meditation apps out there. Here are just a few.
- The Smiling Mind app is free and offers courses in mindfulness aimed at people of all ages.
- The Healthy Minds Program is another free app which incorporates mindful meditation. As well as providing short meditation guidance, this app also contains longer pod-cast style educational information.
- Calm is perhaps the most popular meditation app at the moment. It has a lot of content, but does have a cost after the free trial.
- Another well-known meditation app is Headspace. Again, this costs money after the free trial, but it does receive positive reviews. What’s cool about this company is that currently there is a free meditation on the website which lasts just under 5 minutes. This can be a good way to get a taste of what it would be like to have a meditation app, without committing to installing it.
Finding professional support
- You can use the “Types of Therapy” filter on the Psychology Today website to find counsellors who are trained in mindfulness. You will need to click on the “Show More Types Of Therapy” link when the filter options appear.
- The Counselling Directory also has a mindfulness option under their “Type of therapy” filter. It is located under the “Other therapies” heading.
Deciding if mindfulness is right for you
Almost all sources discussing mindfulness meditation acknowledge that it can be difficult. They will state that it takes will power and dedication to practice regularly at first. But as time goes on and you become more experienced, it should become easier to find the motivation to practice, and easier to meditate for longer.
You may decide that whilst mindful meditation isn’t for you, you would like to be more present in your daily life. Incorporating mindfulness into what you do can be a good way to give yourself intermittent “breaks” from your inner voice. This can be especially helpful if you have an overactive mind.
If neither of these techniques work for you, don’t worry. As we discussed earlier, there are other meditation techniques which achieve similar positive results that you could try. If you are struggling with negative automatic thoughts and you can’t let them pass over you without judgement right now, you may find that challenging them could be helpful as an alternative.
Whether you ultimately decide mindfulness is right for you or not, I hope this introduction has provided you with the information and resources you need to explore it further. Whatever path you choose, I hope you find the increased focus or inner peace you are looking for.