Are you permanently stressed–out, constantly mulling over the past and worrying endlessly about the future? Do you lie in bed fretting – just wishing your mind would go quiet so you can sleep? Many of us in the 21st century live in a heightened state of anxiety, chasing our own tails, unable to relax and enjoy what is happening in the moment, living inside our own heads and failing to notice what is all around us.

Mindfulness is a mental health toolkit designed to teach people to live in and enjoy the moment, putting aside your troubles from the past and not fretting about what lies ahead.

Some describe mindfulness as treating yourself more kindly or teaching you to rediscover your joie de vivre. Of course it’s now a new idea – we’ve all heard the expression “smell the roses” and the concept of enjoying and learning to live in the moment is the basis of ancient Buddhism.

If you apply it to physical exercise – for example, running – it’s about becoming more aware of your body in the moment, of each step you take, concentrating on your feet and how they feel and focusing on your breath, so you are in the moment, enhancing your enjoyment.

Does it work?

If mindfulness sounds a bit hippy–dippy–summer–of–love–ish – be reassured it is an approach that’s underpinned by a solid basis in scientific research. The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence recommends mindfulness as a way of preventing depression in people who have had three or more bouts of depression. Research has shown it as effective as antidepressants.

The benefits of mindfulness in preventing serious depression and emotional distress have been proven by 10 clinical trials, according to the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, based at Oxford University.

Having said that it’s not a one-size-fits-all cure for depression and anxiety in everyone and research is still ongoing into who benefits most from mindfulness.

Also it’s not just a treatment for people with clinical depression – it can be a useful approach for anyone who is stressed out, rushing around and at risk of burnout as a way of “checking-in” with yourself and what’s going on around you. You don’t have to be stressed or ill to benefit from the strategies it can teach you to live with more appreciation and less anxiety.

What are you taught?

You’re encouraged to:

  • Reconnect with your body and the sensations you experience.
  • To make a conscious effort to be aware of the sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment – come off auto pilot in other words.
  • Remind yourself to notice your everyday surroundings – sometimes it’s suggested you do this at a set time of day – but it doesn’t have to be sitting cross-legged on the floor – it could be sitting on a train to work or a few minutes sitting in your garden or other quiet place.
  • Name your thoughts and feelings – for instance be able to recognise a negative thought – like a cloud in the sky or a bus passing by – without necessarily being affected by it.

How can I learn to be mindful?

Sessions are typically offered in a group situation and last eight weeks and include meditation and breathing exercises and are available through the NHS in some areas. But there are also free online courses that have been scientifically validated.

There also books and CDs to guide, such as Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman (available from Amazon £10.49 ) which comes with an accompanying CD with meditation exercises.

  • Find out more by watching this YouTube lecture by Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University’s Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

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