Mindfulness has become very popular in recent years. It is claiming huge mental health benefits in treating anxiety and depression and has become integral to psychotherapy, especially within cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), with a common goal of helping people gain perspective on irrational, unhelpful and self-limiting thoughts.
But what is mindfulness and what are the benefits?
Mindfulness is, in principle, simply a set of meditation techniques that lead you to question your identity and your relationship to the world. If you can understand your patterns and triggers to painful emotions that manifest themselves in unhealthy behaviours, habits and beliefs, you can help yourself to transform them.
In other words, mindfulness seeks to train the brain to break the patterns of unhealthy autopilot responses to painful emotions and help you accept your experiences, from a positive and healthy perspective, and create alternative conscious thoughts and behaviours.
Is it successful in helping anxiety and depression?
Yes – mindfulness can help in many ways:
· It can increase your ability to engage and enjoy the pleasures of life, form connections with others and enables you to “let go” so you can focus on the here and now, be less preoccupied about the future, or wallow in the past.
· This has proven benefits to mental well-being as psychotherapists use mindfulness to treat not only anxiety and depression but in addition, substance abuse, eating disorders, relationship issues and obsessive-compulsive disorder
· As mental well-being improves, mindfulness has proven benefits to physical well-being in the relief of heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduced chronic pain, improved sleep, and help gastrointestinal issues.
How do you it?
All mindfulness techniques are a form of meditation with the aim to achieve a state of alertness by deliberately paying attention to the thoughts and bodily sensations that arise within you, without judgment, allowing the mind to focus on the present. This is a daily practice so give yourself at least 20 -30 minutes a day undisturbed.
The basic technique is the sit quietly in a chair or on the floor and focus on your natural breathing, or mantra, allowing the thoughts to come and go without judgement, just noticing them, returning your focus on your breathing or mantra. Notice sounds, sensations, your thoughts and:
· Your bodily sensations, such as tingle or itch, without judgement and let them go.
· Other sensations such as sounds, smells, tastes, touches, without judgement. Name them and let them go.
· Emotions that come up like joy, sadness, anger, frustration. Again, name them, without judgement and let them go. It may become difficult but accept the presence of the emotion, but sit with it, feel it and let it go.
· If your body is craving something such as food, substance, behaviours, notice how the craving feels in your body, without judgement. Replace any thought or wish for the craving to go away with the thought with the knowledge that the craving will soon reduce and let it go.
It is important to stay with it.
At first your mind might wander, daydream or criticise. Simply notice where your mind has gone and gently redirect it back to the present. Mindfulness may evoke emotions, thoughts and sensations that are uncomfortable and difficult to sit with. Over time, and with greater mindfulness practice, it will become easier to sit with the emotions, thoughts and sensations from your experiences, rewarding you with a route to greater happiness and self-awareness. Above all, mindfulness involves being kind, forgiving towards yourself and self-accepting.
Developing resilience to anxiety and depression
Brain scans show how mindfulness assists neuroplasticity in the growth of new neural circuits in response to new mental activities. This means that, psychologically, mindfulness helps you to develops a mental state of acceptance and resilience, rather than avoidance, so you will find yourself increasingly moving towards, accepting and managing challenging situations. This quickly becomes the new “normal” and with it, increasing self-confidence and self-esteem.
My client example: Julie suffers with OCD and panic attacks (name changed)
“I suffer with panic attacks – I don’t know where they come from but I just feel I’m just falling apart. One minute I’m OK and then I can’t breathe, I feel helpless, frozen. Then suddenly I feel like a pressure cooker and this huge need to just scream and scream.
I use mindfulness meditation to control my anxiety. When I started it was really hard. I would be doing it and all these thoughts of hopelessness and self-blame and judgement kept filling the space in my head. It was so hard. Hundreds of thoughts and emotions would pop in. I kept telling myself I was worthless and the depression and panic kept following. It made me more scared and I would cry.
So I thought to make it easier I would detach myself. It was like watching myself on a movie screen but not happening to me. But I realised I had to let it go. It was when I started to just allow the emotions and just sit with the feelings I started to have more awareness. When I got scared I focussed on my breathing till it passed.
Now I can sit with my emotions and I have become more comfortable with them. I have also become more aware of my thoughts and I have started to like myself more. I’m also controlling the OCD and the panic attacks! I’m not quite there but I’m doing a lot better”