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Mindfulness

Mindfulness: tips and exercises

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Work, family, household, finances… juggling it all can be enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed. Feeling like you’re under unmanageable pressure is not good for your mental or physical health1. There is a lot of talk about ‘mindfulness’ being helpful to help counteract stress and feel calmer, but what does it mean?

Train your brain

‘Mindfulness’ comprises a simple set of techniques to train your brain to be free of busy thoughts that can crowd out your sense of calm. We may be hearing more about it of late, but it’s certainly not new: it draws on practices that Buddhists have been using for almost 1000 years.

Studies have shown that by training for a few minutes each day, people report significantly better mental health2.

The research is still ongoing, but mindfulness is being used in an increasing range of settings, from stress clinics to schools and cancer units3,4,5. It is not considered suitable for people with social anxiety disorders or phobias though, so if you’re not sure, talk to your GP6.

How does it work?

Mindfulness has much in common with forms of talking therapy that make us more aware of our thought processes, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Neurobiologists are finding that mindfulness training can make physical changes to the brain, improving its ability to manage stress7. Once we become more aware and accepting, we are often better able to gently move away from negative thought patterns.

Tips for getting started

If you want to give it a go, you could follow this simple technique:

  • Try sitting up, with your eyes open or closed, or walking outside.
  • Take a moment to pay attention to the sounds around you – those nearby and those further away. Think about any sensations you feel in your body: is the air cold or warm on your skin? Notice the pressure of your body against the chair, or of your feet on floor.
  • Now focus on the physical sensation of the breath going in and out. Can you feel it in your nostrils? Your chest? Your abdomen? Try to become aware of any sensations.
  • Whenever a thought pops into your head (it might be ‘What shall I cook for supper?’ or ‘Mindfulness is so hard – I can’t stop thinking’), just notice it without judgement, and let it gently drift away, returning to focus on the breath.

Once you get used to this, try immersing yourself 100 per cent into whatever you are doing – even eating a meal or washing the car. You can even set reminders on your phone at points throughout the day to step out of whatever you are doing and be mindful for a minute or two.

After practising mindfulness for a few days or weeks, some people find their concentration improves, they are less carried off by compulsive thoughts, and they feel more poised and in control.

Find out more

If you’re interested in learning more about practising mindfulness, you could:

  • Join a local mindfulness workshop
  • Find a course online such as bemindful.co.uk, hosted by the Mental Health Foundation
  • Download an app such as Headspace that provides guided meditation on your phone

You might want to also check out our mindful eating article for some techniques specifically designed to help you eat more mindfully.

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Sources:

1. Understanding stress, NHS (http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/understanding-stress.aspx) last accessed in June 2016

2. Mindfulness- and acceptance-based interventions for anxiety disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Social Care Institute for Excellence (http://www.scie-socialcareonline.org.uk/mindfulness--and-acceptance-based-interventions-for-anxiety-disorders-a-systematic-review-and-meta-analysis/r/a1CG0000000GcAIMA0), last accessed in June 2016

3.Mindfulness, NHS (http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/mindfulness.aspx), last accessed in June 2016

4. Depression in adults: recognition and management, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16685074?ordinalpos=4&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum), last accessed in June 2016

5. Mindfulness meditation for oncology patients: a discussion and critical review, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (http://news.mit.edu/2015/decoding-sugar-addiction-0129), last accessed in June 2016

6. Social anxiety disorder: recognition, assessment and treatment, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg159/chapter/1-recommendations#interventions-that-are-not-recommended-to-treat-social-anxiety-disorder), last accessed in June 2016

7. Neurobiological changes explain how mindfulness meditation improves health, Carnegie Mellon University (http://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2016/february/meditation-changes-brain.html), last accessed in June 2016