Mindfulness meditation has never been more popular. No longer seen as just a practice of Buddhist monks and Hindi ascetics, people from all walks of life are now engaging in mindfulness practices with the aid of many online resources and apps. And it’s not just the general public who are keen. Many scientific researchers are also exploring the physiological and psychological benefits of regular mindfulness practice.


What is ‘Mindfulness’?

Mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience, without judgement”


There is no one accepted definition of mindfulness, but it can be referred to as a psychological quality that involves bringing one's complete attention to present experience, on a moment-to-moment basis, whilst calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, in a non-judgemental way.

Despite being rooted in 2500-year-old Buddhist philosophy and practice, mindfulness meditation requires no particular religious or cultural belief system. Different techniques can be utilised in order to practice mindfulness and it can be used for many different purposes.


Health Benefits of Mindfulness

Initial research on the effects of mindfulness interventions focused on benefits for various patients groups (e.g. those with chronic pain, anxiety, eating and major depressive disorders, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, or cancer).1 These studies found that mindfulness decreases stress sensitivity,2,3,4 increases stress management,5 improves concentration,6 improves physical resilience,7,8,9 and reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression.10,11,12 More recent studies have reported positive effects of mindfulness interventions on chronic pain,13 immunity,14 eating disorders,15 and addiction.16

Following on from the promising results for patients, mindfulness therapies have more recently also been used for healthy people,17 and for employees and managers in healthcare settings,18 and other stressful occupations,19 with promising results for stress reduction.

The UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has recommended Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy since 2004 and in 2017 NHS England mandated it as a treatment that should be available in all primary care mental health services.



Simple Mindfulness Exercises


MINDFUL SEEING

Find a space at a window where there are sights to be seen outside. Look at everything there is to see. Avoid labeling and categorising what you see outside the window - instead of thinking “bird” or “stop sign,” try to notice the colours, the patterns, or the textures. Pay attention to the movement of the grass or leaves in the breeze. Notice the many different shapes present in this small segment of the world you can see. Try to see the world outside the window from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with these sights. If you become distracted, gently pull your mind away from those thoughts and notice a colour or shape again to put you back in the right frame of mind.

 

FIVE SENSES EXERCISE

This is a quick and relatively easy exercise to bring you to a mindful state quickly:

  • Notice five things that you can see - Look around you and bring your attention to five things that you can see. Pick something that you wouldn’t normally notice, like a shadow or a small crack in the concrete.
  • Notice four things that you can feel - Bring awareness to four things that you are currently feeling, like the texture of your jumper or the smooth surface of a table you are resting your hands on.
  • Notice three things you can hear - Take a moment to listen and note three things that you hear in the background.
  • Notice two things you can smell - Bring your awareness to smells that you usually filter out, whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant.
  • Notice one thing you can taste - You can take a sip of a drink, chew a piece of gum, eat something, or notice the current taste in your mouth.

 


BREATHING

Whilst sitting or lying comfortably with your eyes closed, practice bringing awareness to your breath. Notice the rhythm, how your chest and stomach rise and fall, the experience of breathing in and expelling out. Don’t try to change the way you are breathing but rather just hold gentle awareness of the breath. 

BODY SCAN

Lying comfortably slowly move your attention through different parts of the body, starting from the top of your head moving all the way down to the end of your toes. Focus on feelings of warmth, tension, tingling or relaxation of different parts of your body, the texture of clothing against the skin, the contours of the surface on which the body is resting, the temperature of the body and the environment.

YOGA

Signing up to a regular yoga class can be a good gentle introduction to mindfulness, and many of the pranayama (breathing exercises) and asanas (poses) help bring awareness and focus to the body. 

 


Top Tips

Set aside regular time to practise. Regular short periods of mindful meditation can work better than occasional long ones.  If you struggle to find the time, you might want to decide on one or two routine activities which you will try to do mindfully each day, for example having a shower or eating your lunch.
 
Make yourself comfortable. It can help to do mindfulness in a space where you feel safe and comfortable and won't be easily distracted. Some people find practicing mindfulness in nature to be of particular benefit.
 
Go slowly. Try to build your practice slowly. Remember, you’re learning a new skill so it’ll take time to develop. Most people find it hard to sit and meditate for long periods of time at first, so try to do a few minutes and gradually build up to more. There's no need to set ambitious goals or put pressure on yourself. Many people find it takes a while to feel comfortable doing mindfulness exercises.
 
Don’t be critical of yourself. When you notice your mind wandering, you can just gently bring yourself back to the exercise, without judgement or criticism.



Mindfulness Resources

There are many self-guided mindfulness resources available to guide you through different mindfulness exercises, including apps, books and CDs and online courses.

Mobile phone apps: Calm, Headspace, Stop Breathe & Think, 10% Happier, The Mindfulness App, Buddhify, Smiling Mind. Many apps are free to download and offer a free trial, so you can find the one that best fits your needs before investing in a subscription.

Books:  Below is a (by no means exhaustive) list of popular mindfulness books:  

  • Meditation for Fidgety Sceptics by Dan Harris
  • How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
  • Stress Less, Accomplish More by Emily Fletcher
  • The Mindful Day by Laurie J. Cameron
  • The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim
  • Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook For People Who Know They Should But Don’t by Sukey and Elizabeth Novogratz
  • Resilience by Linda Graham
  • The Procrastination Fix by Jacob Greene

Online Courses

  • Be Mindful  runs a 4 week online mindfulness course developed by qualified teachers. It's listed in the NHS Digital Library.
  • Breathworks offers mindfulness courses to manage pain, stress and illness.

If you would prefer a more supervised mindfulness practice, at least to begin with, there are many courses and practitioners offering one-to-one sessions in many locations across the country.

Introductory Courses: You might find introductory courses, taster sessions or groups are organised through your place of work or education, or a local library or community centre. Some local branches of the mental health charity ‘Mind’ may also run mindfulness courses and groups. 

Many private practitioners also offer both introductory courses. You can look for a qualified mindfulness teacher or therapist in your local area through the UK Mindfulness Network and Be Mindful online search tools, which only list qualified teachers.

Formal Courses: Some structured mindfulness therapy programmes have been developed to treat specific problems. The most well-established courses are:

  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) – for depression and anxiety.
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) – for general stress. It can also help you manage long-term health conditions.

In some cases these are recommended treatments on the NHS, but their availability on the NHS varies across the country and there can be a waiting list. Talk to your GP or use the online NHS service finder to find out if these programmes are available near you. They may also be offered through the private sector for a fee. You can look for a qualified mindfulness teacher or therapist in your local area through the UK Mindfulness Network and Be Mindful online search tools, which only list qualified teachers.


References

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