Mindfulness explained: everything you need to know [Video]

Dr Meera Joshi
Mindfulness expert for Bupa UK
26 January 2018

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This article is more than three years old. It reflects the best available evidence at the time of publication.

At Bupa, we’re passionate about mindfulness and the value it can bring to our everyday lives. We understand, however, that the topic can be confusing if you’re new to it. We invited you to ask us your burning questions about mindfulness and Dr Meera Joshi, a mindfulness expert at Bupa, has answered them. So here it is: Mindfulness – everything you need to know.

1. What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a term that’s used so often now these days that sometimes we forget what it really means. Being mindful is just being really, really present. It’s about being really connected to, and really aware of, what’s going on right now in our minds and in our bodies.

2. What does practising mindfulness involve?

Practising mindfulness involves learning a set of exercises that you do on a regular basis. The aim of the exercise is learning to focus on being really present. So you would start, for example, with being focused on an object and then move on to being focused on sensations in your body and then move on to being focused on the breath.

3. What are the benefits of mindfulness?

The evidence shows that there’s quite a variety of benefits to mindfulness. Mindfulness can be quite protective; it can reduce stress, it can reduce burnout and it can prevent depression and anxiety.

Mindfulness can also be a real boost; it can increase feelings of happiness, a sense of wellbeing and can improve concentration.

4. Is mindfulness just a fad?

There was a time when mindfulness was thought of as a fad, especially when it became really well known. The evidence now is so strong that mindfulness is becoming much more integrated into the wider world. So mindfulness is used in schools, it’s used in the medical world, it’s used in the workplace, and it’s also used in correctional facilities as well.

5. How do I start learning mindfulness?

A really great way of starting to learn mindfulness would be through an app or with books that take you step by step through the process. Once you become familiar with these and you feel that you might want to develop your practice a little bit, going on a course is a really good idea. And that’s because having interaction with other people will help you develop your understanding of mindfulness.

6. Can anybody learn mindfulness?

Mindfulness is for everybody. We try to make mindfulness as accessible as possible. For example, we have special mindfulness programmes for children in schools, so it’s in a language they understand and it’s a bit more fun. And there’s also mindfulness programmes for the workplace, which is much more accessible and much more adapted to the work environment.

7. Do certain people benefit more from mindfulness?

Everybody can benefit from mindfulness. In research studies for mindfulness, however, we sometimes focus on some groups of people. So we know, for example, that people with chronic pain can really benefit from mindfulness because it can reduce their symptoms. We also know that people who have had depression before can really benefit from mindfulness as well because it can reduce the chances of them getting depression again.

8. Do doctors prescribe mindfulness as a treatment?

In the UK, mindfulness is a licensed treatment for people that have had depression before. So the studies actually show that mindfulness is as good as antidepressant medication in preventing further episodes of depression. If you think that this might apply to you, going and seeing your GP is a really good place to start. In particular, you want to ask about mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Other situations where mindfulness can be helpful include difficulty sleeping and stress.

9. What are the mental benefits of mindfulness?

Mindfulness has quite a wide range of mental benefits. Mindfulness can really help with day-to-day tasks. So it can help with improving concentration and improving working memory. Working memory is when you hold a few pieces of information in your head at any one time. So, for example, if you’re doing mental maths. And the evidence shows mindfulness can really boost this and your ability to work things out quickly.

Mindfulness can also help in thought processes. So, for example, if you’re worried about something and you think about it over and over again, you might find yourself getting and feeling a bit low and that’s called rumination. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce rumination.

10. Can mindfulness help performance in sport?

Mindfulness can really enhance sport performance. It does this by bringing an awareness to your body as well as helping you become focused, and in some cases it can really give the leading edge. An example of this is the Seattle Seahawks. They entered the American Super Bowl in 2014 and they were a relatively unknown team, they had only entered once before. But that year they had had mindfulness training alongside very rigorous physical training and that year they went on to win the Super Bowl.

11. Does mindfulness change how your mind and body works?

Evidence shows that there are actual changes that occur in your brain in response to practising mindfulness on a regular basis. There’s an area in the brain called the amygdala which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response which you might have come across before. This is a response to any threats or anything intimidating in your environment. People that practise mindfulness on a regular basis have been shown to have a shrinkage in that area of the brain, in the amygdala. There is also evidence to suggest that there are benefits to your body as well. Some studies show that your immune response is boosted when you practise mindfulness regularly. Your immune response is what helps you fight of infections, for example.

12. What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

Mindfulness is a practice that is actually based on meditation, but isn’t religious or affiliated to any particular group. The mindfulness practice has been tested scientifically, and that is what we teach.

There are some types of meditation that have slightly different aims; for example, emptying your mind or becoming more relaxed, and these aren’t really the aims of mindfulness. In mindfulness, we aim to become more present and accept it just the way it is.

13. Do you get an immediate benefit from mindfulness?

Studies show that the benefits of mindfulness come from regular practice, and this is because of the changes that occur in your brain – they take time and they come with practice. However, everyone’s experience is quite different and sometimes people do say that they get an immediate effect. They feel much happier or calmer after just practising for the first time.

14. Do you practise mindfulness?

I personally practise mindfulness, as do all mindfulness teachers. I try to make time every single day, particularly in the morning, and that’s when I’ll spend 20 or 30 minutes. And then what I’ll do is during the day I’ll try and find little pockets of time when I can be more mindful. So that might be taking some time to have lunch and putting away any distractions and really focusing on my lunch. Or it might be taking a walk and really trying to be aware of what’s going on around me instead of maybe just being on my phone.

15. How can we use mindfulness to improve our working lives?

Mindfulness can work in two quite different ways in our working lives. On an individual basis, it can really help in terms of developing concentration, developing focus, and if you do experience any stress or any burnout related to your job, it can reduce that.

In terms of the workplace culture, mindfulness can be a real benefit. It can bring a lot of collaboration, creativity and improved connections between people.

16. How can a family practise mindfulness together?

There are lots of really simple ways you can use mindfulness in your family. A really good example is at dinnertime or meal times. If you put away any distractions and really make an effort to focus on what you’re eating, enjoying the textures and flavours – and sharing this, this can really bring mindfulness into what you’re doing. Another example would be when you’re outdoors, when you go for a walk together, again bringing in an awareness, really taking in what you can see and engaging – asking each other what can you see, what’s here, what’s there? This can really bring an awareness and sense of mindfulness into what you’re doing.

17. What is a digital detox?

A digital detox is taking a certain period of time away from technology. So that would be things like smartphones, laptops, internet in general and television. The reason a digital detox is important is because our brains aren’t really evolved to cope with information overload, which is what the internet can really do. So taking some time away from all of this and allowing your brain to be really present and really mindful is really beneficial.

18. What are the benefits of a digital detox?

The benefits of a digital detox are really quite similar to the benefits of mindfulness. When you first do a digital detox, you might feel as if you’re at a bit of a loose end or you might feel a bit bored because you’re not used to spending time without your smartphone or your laptop. With time, however, you may find that you start to enjoy activities that you used to do before. Or you might just start to enjoy your own company.

19. How can we use mindfulness to help us with a digital detox?

Mindfulness can be really useful in terms of digital detoxing. A great place to start is becoming aware of how much time you’re spending on your phone. A lot of us are on these devices without really thinking about it. And if you just become a bit more aware of it, you’ll start to notice there’s a habit there that you can break.

Another way of using mindfulness to detox would be to make some time, maybe once a week or once a month, to put away everything that’s technology- or internet-based and make some time to do something that’s quite basic, quite normal. Maybe it’s eating or preparing a meal or going for a walk, but really focusing on it away from everything else.

20. Have you ever done a digital detox?

Yes, I’ve personally done digital detoxes before, as part of my mindfulness practice and as part of my teacher training. What we often do when we’re practising mindfulness is we choose to put away our phones, laptops – anything to do with technology. We may also decide not to get in touch with anyone on the phone for a day, unless we have any emergencies or important phone calls to make.

What also happens on a mindfulness retreat sometimes, is that we decide to be silent. This is probably what I would describe as a next level in terms of digital detox. When I first started doing these retreats and started doing the silence and the detox, I used to feel quite uncomfortable. It was quite interesting that I would always go in prepared and think that this was going to be easy and then about half way through the day, I’d miss being on social media or I’d miss checking the news, for example. But in general, by the end of the day I’d feel more grounded and almost better in myself for not having to always be checking what’s going on in the world. And so every so often, if you’re inclined to do so, I’d definitely recommend a digital detox.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Dr Meera Joshi
Dr Meera Joshi
Mindfulness expert for Bupa UK

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