There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness, but what does it actually mean?
Put simply, mindfulness means learning to notice your thoughts and feelings, rather than getting caught up in them. Learning to recognise them as they arise without judging them as good or bad, and then re-directing your attention to the present moment if that’s more helpful. Learning to do this means that your thoughts and feelings have less of an impact on you. This noticing and letting go are key aspects of mindfulness and they are skills that can be developed. And the research tells us that it takes as little as five minutes a day to ‘rewire’ your brain and develop your mindful muscle!
Being mindful of thoughts
Every day, it’s estimated that we have about 6,200 thoughts. We dwell on the past, we worry about the future, we problem solve, and we daydream. And when our mind is occupied with all these thoughts, we’re dragged from the present moment and we’re usually unaware that this is happening. It’s almost as if we’re going about our day on auto-pilot.
Now sometimes it’s perfectly fine to be caught up in your thoughts. For example, if you’re reminiscing about fun times with friends or you’re working towards solving a problem – that can be productive and life enriching. But if you find yourself repeatedly dwelling on past negative experiences (ruminating), or worrying about what might happen tomorrow or next week, or next year, then after a while this can take its toll on you. All of that unhelpful thinking can be exhausting and it change affect your mood and anxiety levels. So practicing mindfulness is a valuable tool than can help put a stop to ruminating and overthinking because it strengthens your ability to re-focus on the here and now.
The other thing is that if you’re frequently caught up in your thoughts and you’re on auto-pilot, then you’re actually missing out on being present, and participating in your life. If you take the view that each and every moment of your life is important, then letting go of unhelpful thoughts and being able to deliberately focus on the present moment will lead to a richer, more fulfilling life.
Being mindful of feelings
Just as we can get caught up in our thoughts, we can sometimes be overcome by our feelings. It’s like our feelings push us around and cause us to behave in ways that can be unhelpful for us or those around us. Other times we might do our best to avoid feeling things because this can cause us emotional pain or distress.
Learning to be mindfully aware of our feelings without judging them, is a way of allowing us step back and watch without having to get so caught up in the struggle with our emotions. Learning to be mindful of our emotions can give us more control over ourselves. But just like any new skill, it takes practice.
Mindfulness in Action
Here’s an example of mindfulness in action. Imagine you’re at a nightclub alone and you see your ex with a new partner. You immediately jump into full panic mode and your mind goes into overdrive – I have to get out of here, this is so awkward, I feel sick, what if they see me, what will I say, I can’t breathe, they’ll think I’m stalking them, I’m such a loser…
Now let’s take a step back for a second…and just notice what’s happening here. You’ve been completely pulled into your thoughts and now they’re dragging you around. So – just stop and notice that. That’s mindfulness. You could say to yourself – ok, I’m noticing anxiety right now, and then take a calming breaths, and then refocus your awareness on the present moment. You notice how dark it is, you hear the DJ switch to a new tune, you feel the cold glass in your hand, and you notice the bubbles in your mouth when you take a sip, and then you notice that the person at the bar next to you is smiling at you. And the thoughts about your ex and you being a total loser are fading from your awareness. And that’s mindfulness. Pretty neat! Now…this skill of noticing and shifting your attention won’t happen over night. It takes practice. Just like learning to play an instrument, or drive a car, or anything else that’s worthwhile.
What does the research say about mindfulness?
Mindfulness is backed by a huge body of research. Aside from the benefits already mentioned, literally hundreds of scientific studies show that mindfulness can be beneficial for:
- Smoking and addiction
- Physical health
Mindfulness is a superpower that we can all nurture