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MINDFULNESS. Yes, I’m sure all of you have heard of it at some point!
Feeling anxious? Try mindfulness.
Suffering from depression? Try mindfulness.
Ruminating on negative thoughts or events? Try mindfulness.
There are a ton of apps and videos out there on mindfulness, and most mental health professionals would suggest it, as well.
Do you know why? Because mindfulness works; it’s an extremely powerful technique that helps us to be present in the moment and not dwell neither on the future nor on the past.
People have the tendency to brush things off when they hear it too much or when it becomes cliche, but mindfulness is a cliche for a reason.
So before you brush off the idea of mindfulness, give this article a read and discover the what, why, and how of mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
Contrary to popular belief that you can only do mindfulness in a zen place while sitting down on your yoga mat, you can actually do mindfulness anywhere and while doing any activities.
Basically, mindfulness is a person’s innate ability to be fully present, aware of their environment and what their body is doing and feeling, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around them.
Despite being a basic human ability, it doesn’t sound as easy, right? And this is why there is a deluge of videos and mobile applications out there. Mindfulness requires dedication and daily practice to reach the point of naturally being mindful.
It is true that it’s hard to be mindful in a busy world where multi-tasking and grind culture are the norms. You move from one task to another, with thoughts of work, family, finances, and other things running through your mind.
You then forget that you live in the now, and without being mindful we forget to live in the present; unfortunately, it’s something that we cannot take back.
Being mindful is purposely focusing your attention on the present moment and being aware of all of your thoughts and judgments without feelings.1
When did the concept of mindfulness emerge?
There’s a reason why meditation is the first thing that pops into your head when you think of mindfulness.
Yes, meditation is a wonderful practice for mindfulness, but there’s a deeper reason why people often think that meditation and mindfulness are the same things.
According to a journal review written by Bhikkhu Anālayo in 2018, they posited that the concept of mindfulness may have started from ‘early Buddhism’, which is the first two centuries of the development of Buddhist thought and practice (5th to 3rd BCE).
But through time, each Buddhist tradition has evolved in its own specific historical and social setting. Parallel to this development is the evolution to the approach and understanding of mindfulness.
The early Buddhist definition of mindfulness is being a mental faculty–the ability to remember what has been done or said a long time ago. In layman’s terms, it was first understood to be related to memory.
Another definition mentions the four establishments of mindfulness, satipatt hāna, smrtyupasthana, 念處, and dran pa nye bar gzhag pa, which is concerned with what’s happening at the moment and the sense of being present with mindfulness.
By putting these two early definitions of mindfulness side by side, it can be said that mindfulness requires discernment of what is an observable, instructable, and manipulable feature of experiences, at the same time having a ‘clear knowing’ or ‘clear comprehension’ while doing it.
This is just the initial insight into the historical depth of mindfulness, as there are more studies out there about its history.
What is clear, however, is that one of the main difficulties in actually understanding the history of mindfulness is the early textual collections, which are mostly in Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan, have yet to be translated into English.
How is mindfulness beneficial to our overall health?
The general population’s tendency to spend too much time daydreaming, problem-solving, time planning, and ruminating on negative thoughts and events may lead to stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression.
This is where mindfulness comes in– it is the art of being intensely aware of the moment and the skill of bringing your senses back to your body despite all the chaos around you.
It may involve breathing methods, guiding imagery, meditation, and other practices or activities that relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.
According to a journal which reviews the empirical literature on the effects of mindfulness on psychological health, mindfulness has been theoretically and empirically associated with psychological well-being.
To be specific, it has been found that the elements of mindfulness-awareness and nonjudgemental acceptance of the present experience are regarded as potentially effective remedies against common forms of psychological distress (e.g rumination, anxiety, fear, anger, depression, etc.).
These elements have also involved the maladaptive tendencies to avoid, manage, suppress, or over-engage with one’s negative thoughts and emotions.2,3
In what areas is mindfulness beneficial?
Mindfulness is proven to have numerous benefits, but the most common and important benefits are within these areas: 4
REDUCED RUMINATION. Several studies have proven that mindfulness helps with stopping rumination.
In a study done by Chambers et al. (2008), 20 new meditators participated in a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat After the retreat, all the members of the group reported significantly higher self-reported mindfulness and decreased negative affect as compared with a control group.
Additionally, the respondents also reported fewer depressive symptoms of less rumination. On top of this, they also saw a significant increase in working memory capacity and sustaining attention when performing tasks.
STRESS REDUCTION. There have been numerous studies that report that mindfulness meditation increases positive affect and decreases anxiety and negative affect.
In one of the studies published in 2010, Hoffman et. all conducted a meta-analysis that explored the use of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.
The study concludes that mindfulness-based therapies may be significantly functional in changing affective and cognitive processes that stem from multiple clinical issues. The findings of this study are consistent with the results of other studies on mindfulness and stress.
BOOSTS TO WORKING MEMORY. If your mind is not fully aware of the present, it’s highly possible that you won’t remember many details of your day-to-day life, hence, mindfulness boosts working memory.
In a 2010 study, Jha et al. documented the benefits of mindfulness meditation among military groups who participated in an eight-week mindfulness training and those who did not. The researchers saw an increase in working memory capacity within the meditating military group while the non-meditating military group had a decrease.
FOCUS. Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation practice and self-reported mindfulness have a direct correlation with cognitive flexibility and attentional function, according to Moore and Malinowski (2009).
According to their study, people who meditate have a significantly better performance on all measures of attention and have higher self-reported mindfulness.
LESS EMOTIONAL REACTIVITY. A study in 2007 supports the notion that mindfulness meditation decreases emotional reactivity, such as lashing out due to extreme anger, hurting one’s self or others, or spiraling into depression, amongst others.
The study found that people with anywhere from one month to 29 years of mindfulness meditation practice can disengage more from emotionally upsetting pictures and enable them to focus better on cognitive tasks as compared to those who do not practice.
MORE COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY. More than being reactive to negative scenarios or feelings, researchers have found that people who practice mindfulness also have greater cognitive flexibility.
Different studies have shown that mindfulness meditation enhances the skill of self-observation, which neurologically disengages the automatic pathways, the means by which the central nervous system sends commands to the entire body, that were initially created and enables present-moment input to be integrated into a new way.
Furthermore, the practice also activates the brain region responsible for adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations.5,6
RELATIONSHIP SATISFACTION. Interestingly, studies have also seen patterns in the person’s ability to be mindful and relationship satisfaction.
Since mindfulness enables the person to respond well to relationship stress and enhances their ability to communicate their own emotions, empirical evidence suggests that the practice protects them against emotionally stressful effects of relationship conflict.7
More than these aforementioned benefits, there are still a whole lot of benefits to mindfulness; some of these benefits are probably still not explored or studied.
Other benefits are: enhance self-insight, intuition, and fear modulation, increase immune functioning, reduction in psychological distress, increase information processing speed, and others.
Really, there are so many benefits to the simple practice of meditating. So, why not try it?
How can we do mindfulness even in a chaotic environment?
Mindfulness exercises can look different for different people.
Some like meditating, while others hate it. Some prefer breathing exercises, while others rather do mindful activities. Really, you can be mindful in all of your actions and it can already be a mindfulness exercise!
You just need to try out different things and stick to what you think is right and effective for you.
The most popular types of mindfulness activities are:8
Meditation – There are so many videos online to follow, but take baby steps and try out the short ones first such as 3 minutes meditation or engaging ones like loving-kindness meditation.
Breathing exercises – Just like meditation, resources on breathing exercises videos are abundant online. It helps to do it regularly, but especially once you feel like your body is feeling negative emotions.
Mindful movement – Activities under these are limitless. It’s mindfulness as long as you’re doing the activity, at the same time purposely being present in the moment and aware of your thoughts and actions. Mindful movements may include yoga, walking, eating, qi gong, or any physical movement. Even stretching counts!
Sensory exercise – This is the same as mindful movement, practices under this are boundless. You can practice sensory exercises while eating, showering, eating, or even looking at sceneries, as long as you’re in the moment and focusing on the different senses you’re experiencing.
Body scan – A body scan is a very effective form of mindfulness meditation that makes you aware of the feeling of each part of your body and teaches you to accept all of them, regardless of whether it’s good or bad.
Journaling – When you can neither do movements nor meditation, journaling is a good form of mindfulness. It allows you to free-write what you’re feeling or what you’re experiencing in the present moment. It can also be useful in the future when you can read it and process your emotions and experiences.
What are the important elements of mindfulness?
As mentioned, you can practice mindfulness in almost everything you do– journaling, showering, eating, meditating, among so much more.
But, of course, there are important elements that need to be present for it to be considered a mindfulness practice.
According to an article published by the University of Minnesota, there are three important elements in any mindfulness practice which are intention, attention, and attitudes. This is also called the IIA Model.
Sounds easy, right? But let’s break down what these three things mean.
Intention. Again, one of the keywords for mindfulness is purposive. It just doesn’t happen, you have to set your mind and intention to practice mindfulness and cultivate awareness of the present moment.
There should be an intention to focus on the now and silence the external world; of course, it’s normal for these external thoughts to intrude, but just make sure to bring your mind back to yourself.
Attention. Simply, attention is ensuring that you are observing everything that is happening in the present moment— thoughts, feelings, sensations, actions, and behaviors.
Attitude. Throughout the entire practice, you need to make sure that you are treating yourself and the practice with non-judgment, curiosity, and kindness.
Sometimes it gets frustrating that there are so many intrusive thoughts coming your way or your attention keeps on shifting to the past or the present, but remember that it’s normal and you just have to revert your attention back to yourself.
You have to be kind and patient to yourself whenever you practice because love and acceptance are also two crucial things mindfulness is trying to cultivate. Lastly, always be curious about whatever you’re feeling and experiencing.
These three things may sound easy, but it’s hard to perfect in just one day. Results also won’t show in just one day of practicing. It takes regular exercise to cultivate intention, attention, and attitude.
For some it may take weeks, for others it may take months; but the most important thing is that you’re trying and improving each day.
What are the different forms of mindfulness therapies?
For people who are working with a mental health professional, there are various types of mindfulness therapies that work wonders for people, especially those with anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, and even personality disorders.
Sometimes these therapies are employed in one-on-one therapy, but there are also group therapies available out there.
The mental health world is slowly accepting mindfulness-based interventions, and more and more professionals are training and learning how to do it.
Currently, there are four recognized therapy models that are mostly based on a mindfulness practice.9
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSRP) – MBSRP was started in the 70s by Jon Kobat-Zomm, founder of MBSRP and one of the first people to integrate Buddhist principles of mindfulness into his work in science and medicine.
It’s known to address stress, chronic pain, cancer, anxiety, depression, and other chronic issues.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – DBT was also started in the 70s by Marsha Linehan by meshing Western and Eastern Spiritual influences.
It’s usually recommended for people who have high levels of suicidal ideation, borderline personality, self-harm behaviors, substance dependence or addiction, eating and food issues, depression, and PTSD.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – ACT was later on developed in the 80s by Steven Hayes, Kelly Wilson, and Kirk Strosahl.
They mostly incorporated Eastern ideas and techniques into the program. It is an approach used as a treatment for anxiety, depression, substance dependence or addiction, chronic pain, psychosis, and cancer.
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) – MBCT is the latest of the four, it has only developed at the beginning of the 21st century by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale.
Their MBCT program was built upon Zabat-Zinn’s work. It’s usually offered to people who have recurrent depression, anxiety, psychosis, eating and food issues, bipolar, panic attacks, attention deficit hyperactivity, and posttraumatic stress, among others.
Amongst these four, MBSR and MBCT are the two main programs that are actively teaching mindfulness meditations, especially MBCT which incorporates Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques as part of therapy.
DBT and ACT, on the other hand, just utilize some mindfulness exercises in order to promote awareness and focus attention, at the same time enhance cognition experiences during the state of mindfulness.
Mental health professionals have lately come to realize that mindfulness-based therapies significantly help people, those who suffer from various mental health conditions, to separate themselves from negative thoughts, emotions, and other sensations that they experience at the present moment and to lessen the feelings of becoming overwhelmed and helpless.
Tips on how to practice mindfulness and be mindful on a regular basis:
Mindfulness is both easy and hard, at the same time. But to reiterate, it gets easier and easier and you get better and better in each practice.
Before practicing mindfulness, here are salient reminders to keep in mind:10
- You don’t need to buy or spend anything, all you need is some time and space.
- There’s no way to quiet your mind and that’s not the goal of the practice.
- Your mind will always wander to the future or to the past since it’s part of human nature, but the integral thing is to bring it back to the present moment.
- Your judgy brain will always try to take over, so when judgment arises just take a mental note of them, let them pass, and recognize the body sensations as it leaves your body.
- Again, your mind will always wander. So you have to keep returning your attention to the present moment continuously.
So here are some practical tips on how to be more mindful and improve one’s awareness:
- Practice meditation or other mindfulness activities every day, even for just five minutes.
- Focus on one thing at a time. Several recent studies have shown that focusing on one task is far more efficient and produces better results.
- Slow down. Practice mindful movement or sensory exercises by slowing down and savoring and observing what you’re doing and what you’re feeling at the present moment.
- Eat mindfully. Remove gadgets of disruption, and focus on each bite. Focus on the texture, smell, look, taste of food, and bodily sensation as it enters your mouth and goes into your stomach.
- Set boundaries on your gadgets. It’s hard to be mindful when our gadgets keep on bothering us about future tasks or irrelevant notifications. Set a screen time where you are gadget-free, which will make practicing mindfulness easier, as well.
- Move. Practice mindfulness through movements like yoga, stretching, qi gong, or other exercises you prefer. The movement also helps in a person’s general mental and physical health state.
- Spend time in nature. Nature is enormously beneficial for your body, mind, and spirit. It’s also one of the best environments to practice mindfulness and be in tune with your inner self.
Yes, several studies have shown that mindfulness is profoundly beneficial in treating anxiety, depression, rumination, and suicidal ideation, among many others. Just set a little bit of time every day, and you will feel great results in time.