How to Practice Mindfulness
I know that probably, like me, you’ve been inundated with adverts and articles that start “COVID-19” and, like me, you’ve got to the point of thinking “not another one!” As the UK government has implemented strict lockdown measures to help slow the spread of coronavirus, I’ve been reflecting on how we can all support our mental wellbeing during these unprecedented times and how to practice mindfulness not only during the lockdown but after we return to normality as well.
Creating new habits
On average it takes about 3 weeks of practicing the same behaviours to create new habits or routines. Therefore, new positive habits can be learnt and negative habits unlearnt within a few weeks. If practiced regularly for 3 weeks or so, mindfulness could be part of the “new you” coming out of lockdown and benefit you for years to come – not just in times of crisis.
What is mindfulness?
To explain mindfulness, I thought I’d start with something we all most likely have experienced at some time. Have you ever found yourself dwelling on the past? Perhaps you can’t stop replaying a conversation in your head, thinking about what you should have said. Or maybe you’re anxious about the future and ask yourself endless “what if” questions. It can be easy to get caught up in a sea of anxious thoughts and, left unchecked, they often lead to even more anxious thoughts. This can negatively impact our productivity and our health and wellbeing. If we don’t “break the cycle” we can find ourselves being dragged down into a spiral of negativity and, pretty soon, EVERYTHING is a picture of doom and gloom and we feel helpless.
One technique which can help us avoid this is to practice mindfulness – that is, concentrating our attention exclusively on the present in order to focus the mind and avoid distractions. Put simply, when you demonstrate mindfulness, you’re fully aware of your thoughts, emotions, and actions, but, equally, you don’t get caught up in them.
One definition I like personally is from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre who define mindfulness as “moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience, without judgment.” That encapsulates it neatly for me as I like to think of it as appreciating everything about your surroundings, wherever you are and enjoying what you’re experiencing. This can be as simple as tuning in and really taking notice of the trees, birds, sounds and smells around you as you’re walking through a park.
The roots of mindfulness lie in ancient Eastern religions and philosophies, such as Buddhism, but you don’t have to follow any faith to benefit from it.
Advantages and benefits of practicing mindfulness
Improved focus – Mindfulness helps to keep you present in the moment so that you can devote your full attention to what you are doing and minimise the impact of distractions. But it’s not a quick fix – you’ll get into a state of flow more easily and more quickly if you practice mindfulness regularly.
Improved mental and psychical health – Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness can change the structure of our brains so that we respond to stress in a healthier way and retain information for longer. It lowers production of the “stress hormone” cortisol (which can have damaging effects on our hearts), and helps us to regulate our emotions. When we’re not busy worrying about the past or future, we can approach day-to-day challenges more calmly.
Mindfulness can be particularly effective in reducing the negative effects of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, when it’s used in combination with medication and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Researchers have also discovered that people who practice mindfulness meditation for eight weeks can experience physical health benefits, too, such as an increase in the antibodies associated with immune function.
Warning: Despite its many benefits, mindfulness meditation can sometimes have negative side effects, especially in people who have serious underlying conditions such as depression or PTSD. Negative thinking can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While mindfulness has been shown to have a positive effect on reducing occasional negative thinking, you should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if you have any concerns over related illnesses, or if negative thoughts are causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
Greater Resilience – Psychologists describe how people tend to develop and protect a “narrative self” – that is, we tell ourselves stories that paint a picture of who we are. But sometimes, life events challenge these stories, causing us pain and confusion. However, a mindful focus on the present can lead us to see the “experiential” self instead, which can help us to be more adaptable and responsive. So, we’ll likely be more resilient in the face of sudden job loss or dramatically changing markets, for example.
Stronger Relationships – Emotional Intelligence (EI) involves strong self-awareness so, as you might expect, studies have linked mindfulness to higher EI. Another study concluded that mindfulness can help us to develop empathy, and to increase altruistic behaviour. Also, when we’re fully present in a situation, we can respond more authentically to people, which builds trust and increases understanding. Together, these qualities will likely help you to create more meaningful connections and better relationships with your family, friends, neighbours and colleagues.
Enhanced Creativity – Mindfulness can encourage divergent thinking. This enables us to generate more innovative solutions to business problems. In one experiment, for example, programmesers found that subjects who practiced mindfulness meditation for just 10 minutes prior to a brainstorming session produced ideas in nine different categories, compared to just five for the control group.
How to get started practicing mindfulness
Mindfulness sounds easy but it’s important to remember that you need to practice regularly – preferably every day – in order to achieve long-lasting benefits.
Here are some examples of how to practice mindfulness:
1. Mindfulness Meditation
To practice this you need first to find somewhere comfortable. Sit in an upright but relaxed position, and focus on your breathing. Pay attention to how it feels, listen to the sound of your breath, and feel your chest expand and contract. Don’t get frustrated with yourself if distracting thoughts arise. Instead, just be aware that you are getting distracted and gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Aim to do this for at least one minute.
If you want some more tips on how to practice mindfulness meditation, there are plenty of courses and resources available online, many of which are free. There are even mindfulness apps you can download, such as Headspace, which provide guided meditation and advice.
2. Observe Your Environment
We all lead very busy lives for sure! Social media, and our growing reliance on technology have meant that we can find it hard to keep focused. So, regain your concentration by paying more attention to what’s going on around you right now. You don’t have to meditate to do this, either. You can practice it at work, on your commute, or at home. Look at the people near you (if it’s culturally appropriate). Really feel the ground and the sensation of your feet on it. What objects are around you? What sounds can you hear? What smells are there?
3. Slow Down
Concentrate on completing one task at a time to the best of your ability. The pace and demands of work can break our attention and leave us feeling excessively hurried or overwhelmed, which can reduce the quality of our work. If you get distracted, don’t feel guilty. Instead, simply notice the distraction and gently direct your attention back to the task at hand.
4. Pay Attention to Routine Tasks
Another way to bring mindfulness into your life is to think differently about an activity that you do routinely. For example, filing paperwork or washing dishes. Simply pay attention to the detail of the task. Feel the paper between your fingers or experience the sensation of warm water on your hands. Doing this prevents your mind from getting distracted by other anxieties or worries. Try to focus your mind like this for at least five minutes. You might find that you enjoy the activity more and you may feel more positive once you have completed it.
5. Accept Your Feelings
How many times a day do you judge your own thoughts and feelings? For example, you might think, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” or, “That’s a terrible thought.” Part of being mindful means not judging your thoughts and feelings as “right” or “wrong,” as this can often lead to low self-esteem. So, next time this happens, remember that such thoughts and feelings will pass. These thoughts do not define you, they don’t have to mean anything, and as long as you are aware of them you have the choice whether to act on them or not.
Key points to remember
Mindfulness involves being fully aware of your thoughts, emotions, and actions. It means being present in every moment and paying close attention to what is going on right now, instead of worrying about the past or the future. Practicing mindfulness has a number of advantages from improving your mental and physical well-being to increasing concentration, resilience and creativity.
The government lockdown has meant that people feel increased pressure to be productive and have something to show for their time. Being able to practice mindfulness is a skill that will benefit you throughout the lockdown and for many years after.