By Linda Keen BSc (Hons) Counselling & Psychotherapy
Have you ever noticed that when you perform a task you know well, such as driving your car from A to B, you can make the entire journey and not remember anything about it? Or you may be eating your breakfast without even noticing what you’re eating and at the same time day-dreaming about a forthcoming holiday as a release from your stressful life, worrying about an upcoming event, your problematic teenage children, or thinking about any number of other things?
In each of these cases you are literally living in your head, not experiencing the current situation or in touch with the ‘here and now.’ This way of operating is often referred to as being on automatic pilot mode and for some people this can be as much as 95% of their lives. Mindfulness is the opposite of automatic pilot mode. It is about experiencing the world that is firmly rooted in the present moment, which offers a way of freeing oneself from automatic and unhelpful ways of thinking and reacting.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness has become a major player in the battle against the ever-growing tendencies towards depression, stress and anxiety. Research into Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) by Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School has contributed to a growing movement of mindfulness into mainstream institutions such as medicine, psychology, health care and hospitals, schools, corporations, the legal profession, prisons, and professional sports. Since 1979 this research has been ongoing and the team at Massachusetts Medical School continues to investigate the efficacy of MBSR with larger numbers of patients through the CFM Stress Reduction Program.
Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness is: “Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Running a parallel programme at Oxford University’s Oxford Mindfulness Centre, Professor Mark Williams, along with colleagues John Teasdale (Cambridge) and Zindel Segal (Toronto), developed Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for the prevention of relapse and recurrence in major depression. As well as the exploration of mindfulness in the prevention of serious depression and emotional distress through clinical trials, the team at Oxford has also researched the potential of mindfulness to help people build resilience at critical periods in their lives, which can vary from people preparing for a new baby to children and young people at school and college to adults in work and family life.
Prof Williams’ research has now become a treatment of choice for the prevention of recurrent depressive episodes by the NHS. More recent work has led to breakthroughs in the use of mindfulness in suicidality in depression, emotional swings in bipolar disorder and serious anxiety.
“The results of further trials are equally striking. They show that in patients with three or more previous episodes of depression, MBCT reduces the recurrence rate over 12 months by 44% compared with usual care, and is as effective as maintenance antidepressants in preventing new episodes of depression. The UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has recommended MBCT as a cost-effective treatment for preventing relapse in depression.” [National Institute of Clinical Excellence (2004). Depression: Management of Depression in Primary and Secondary Care. National Clinical Practice Guidelines, Number 23. London, HMSO. Updated 2009.]
How do you practice mindfulness?
Being mindful is a step by step process and has to be practiced daily to achieve results, but the first step is to become consciously aware of everything around you. To do this, you use your senses to be exactly where you are in any given moment. By living in the present moment, you use your senses when for example, taking a walk/shower/working by focusing on what you SEE, HEAR, FEEL, TASTE and SMELL. If you were cleaning your teeth, you’d see the movement of the toothbrush, hear the sound of the brush, feel the water, the brush, and taste and smell the toothpaste. Going for a walk in the country, you’d see the trees, grass, flowers, etc, hear the birds, breeze, rustle of leaves and feel the warmth of the sun, wind, etc, and maybe also smell the flowers and taste the salt in the air from the sea.
It is not possible to stop thoughts; thinking is how we plan our lives, the building blocks for where we want to go, but it’s when we become trapped in thoughts from the past and worries about the future that problems arise. We can become stressed and overwhelmed when we have too much to do and not enough time to do it, and it becomes even worse when we multi-task because quite simply the mind cannot do two things at once and attempting to do so creates stress.
A significant element of mindfulness is the time spent in meditation, which with practice and over time results in quietening the mind from constant ruminating. Kabat-Zinn and Williams have compiled many useful meditations to quieten the thinking processes, such as the Body Scan, Breathing, Mountain and Loving Kindness Meditations, to name but a few and they are available free on the internet.
There are two main ways of approaching meditation:
- The practice of using all of your senses to focus yourself in being fully present in the moment, being mindful of what you are doing and where you are right now. This interrupts the on-going stream of thinking, the resident voice in the head which has an opinion on everything and can be endlessly critical of you. The incessant stream of thought naturally subsides in ‘flow’ 1 activities, such as work, sport or any pastime in which we are fully engaged and for which we have a passion, thus using both sides of the brain. However, consciously extending it into other aspects of daily living can be extremely challenging. In fact most people report that it’s only when they start the process of mindfulness that they become aware of how their thoughts never shut up, so some training in relaxation and mental focus is necessary.
- Mindfulness is based on an attitude of acceptance of whatever is going on right now in your head. If you are focusing on your breathing for instance, instead of struggling with each stray thought, you simply allow each thought to arise in a non-judgemental way. You withdraw your energy by observing rather than participating emotionally and pay attention particularly to repetitive thought patterns which have been playing in your head for many years. Monitoring the thoughts starts the process of separating from them, and understanding that you are the thinker behind your thoughts.
With practice you can become immune to the adverse effects of negative thinking by understanding that you think those thoughts but they are not reality.
Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now says: “Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”
There is plenty of research available to corroborate the efficacy of mindfulness and for those interested, start with the following link: http://umassmed.edu/cfm/Research/MBSR-Research/