What is mindfulness?
Let’s start by defining mindfulness. Mindfulness is best described as ‘the regular practise of present moment awareness in a non-judgemental fashion’. Put simply, this means training your mind to pay attention to the present, instead of worrying about the past or the future. It’s a mental skill that takes time and practise to develop, and helps you to become more aware and connected to your surroundings.
Why might I need mindfulness?
We know that to be healthy we should eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly. Lots of experts are now adding mindfulness to the list of ways to manage your wellbeing and mental health. But, you might find yourself wondering if you actually need mindfulness in the same way that you need a balanced diet and exercise. In other words, is there an actual biological need for it?
The answer may well be yes.
Over thousands of years your brain has evolved to help you cope with situations of danger in order to survive. For example, the appearance of a predator or running out of food. Your brain evolved to respond to these situations immediately and so the stressful experience didn’t last very long. But we now live in a modern world where we’re constantly surrounded by stressful situations. Some stresses come from your external world, such as working long hours, constant emails and commuting. Others come from within, such as setting yourself challenging goals, having a daily ‘to do’ list or wanting to succeed. Your brain hasn’t evolved to cope with this chronic stress yet, and evidence suggests it could harm your health and wellbeing.
This modern day situation can be best described as ‘living with an old brain in a new world’. So what’s the solution? You could wait several thousands of years for your brain to evolve, or you can find ways to help your ‘old’ brain to cope. Neuroscientists and psychologists have been developing methods to do exactly this, and mindfulness is one of them.
Does mindfulness work?
Mindfulness essentially reduces the chronic stress of modern life that our brains haven’t yet evolved to cope with. It’s a skill you can learn and use in your daily life. When people practise mindfulness regularly, it can reduce stress and burnout, and increase mental wellbeing.
Evidence suggests that mindfulness can help with addictive behaviours such as gambling, alcohol or substance misuse. It can also help with physical problems like heart disease, high blood pressure and chronic pain.
Around the world, many people are studying the benefits of mindfulness on mental wellbeing. Mindfulness is being used more and more for medical purposes because scientific studies have shown that it works. Some experts have found that if you experience recurrent depression, mindfulness works just as well as antidepressant medicines in preventing new episodes. As a result, a treatment known as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is now recommended for use by the NHS.
So is mindfulness a fad?
Whether or not mindfulness continues to remain popular will, in part, depend on the level of awareness of mental health in our society. As a society we often don’t find it easy to talk about stress and mental health. Being more open to talking about our individual struggles, and about mental health in general, will help us to face the chronic stress of our modern lives. When we acknowledge the problems we have, we are more open to finding solutions.
Mindfulness is a solution that answers a real human need. What’s more, the benefits are strongly backed by scientific evidence. In the past 10 years, mindfulness has been increasingly used by large corporations, clinics, schools and the government. This increase also coincided with the 2015 publication of a UK government report recommending mindfulness, and its potential benefits for organisations and their employees. Mindfulness, it seems, is something that’s here to stay.
Fitting mindfulness into your life can be easy when you know how. To help you get started try these 11 tips on everyday moments for mindfulness. Or give a month of mindfulness a go with our interactive calendar.