By now we’ve likely all heard the term mindfulness thrown around a bajillion times (rough estimation). It’s been a buzzword in wellness circles for the past few years, while searches for mindfulness have grown by an incredible 80% since 2008—a fact you might have already picked up from this month’s Byrdie editor’s letter. But how many of us are actually practising mindfulness on the regular? And if you’re not, do you really know all the ways in which it could benefit your mental health? What if you’ve heard about it but aren’t really sure how do it IRL? Well, have no fear if you tick any of these boxes—we’ve got you covered.
Though often lumped together with meditation and a yogi lifestyle, mindfulness doesn’t actually require jazzy leggings, a mat, or any kit other than your own brain and body. It’s also not tied to any religion, despite often being linked with spirituality. So if you’ve been putting off an investigation into how mindfulness could help you manage your anxiety, be more productive or make better decisions, you’ve come to the right place. To help decipher all the ways in which mindfulness can benefit our well-being, we spoke to Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at mental health charity Mind.
What is mindfulness?
To paraphrase the NHS, mindfulness is simply the act of paying more attention to the present moment, be it your thoughts, your feelings, or your experience of what’s happening around you. The theory is that by being more mindful, aka aware, of our thoughts and feelings, we’re able to remain calmer, more clearheaded, and make better decisions about how we live our lives on a daily basis.
While meditation is a great way of focusing on being more mindful and checking in with yourself when things get a bit chaotic, you can also adopt the practice just by making a conscious decision to shift your mindset. Think of it as taking your brain off autopilot and really engaging with the here and now.
“Mindfulness is a technique that can help people manage their mental health or simply gain more enjoyment from life,” explains Stephen Buckley. “It involves making a special effort to give your full attention to what is happening in the present moment in a nonjudgmental way.”
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Just like yoga and meditation, the benefits of mindfulness cover a wide scope including both mental and physical well-being. Along with helping you to focus more readily on tasks at hand, make healthier daily choices, feel happier and be more productive at work, the most powerful benefits are perhaps for our mental health in times of stress or anxiety.
“Mindfulness describes a way of approaching our thoughts and feelings so that we become more aware of them and react differently to them. For example, if you’re in a stressful situation and feel overwhelmed with negative thoughts, mindfulness can help you stop and focus your attention on your breathing or notice the sensations of your feet on the floor. This can help you take a step back from the negative thoughts and observe them with more objectivity,” notes Stephen.
“Mindfulness can also help you identify negative emotions and learn ways to look after yourself before the feelings get worse. For example, tension or anxiety is usually felt in certain areas of your body, such as your heart beating faster, muscles tensing, or shallow breathing. If you can notice this, you can then take steps to help look after yourself.”
Stephen does warn, however, that while mindfulness can be an extremely useful tool once you’ve mastered it, it might not suit everyone straight off the bat. Especially if you’ve been dealing with feelings of huge overwhelm or depression. “Becoming more aware of thoughts and feelings can initially make some people feel worse, especially if you’re feeling very unwell when you begin,” he explains. If this is the case for you, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP, someone in your support network, or a mental health professional—Mind can help with this too.
So how do I start practicing mindfulness?
It’s important to remember that embracing mindfulness is akin to learning a new skill, so while it can be easy to start dipping your toe in, really mastering it and using it every day can take time and practice. If you struggle at first, just remember that even making the decision to try is a positive thing, so just relax and come back to it when you’re ready. With that in mind, we’ve gathered together our top five tips for getting started with mindfulness.
1. Mindful meditation is a great way to begin, and there are lots of useful resources out there, including apps like Calm, Headspace and Mind Bliss, that offer short, guided sessions for beginners (scroll down now to try one below). Mind advises setting aside a regular time slot each day if you can so that you can start to engage in short but consistent sessions. Doing it regularly will mean it’s easier to build mindfulness into a positive daily routine.
2. Mindful exercises can help if you struggle with meditating. Rather than sitting quietly for 10 to 15 minutes, instead try to really savour just one moment or experience in a day. Mind suggests focusing on the taste, sight and temperature of drinking your morning brew or trying to pay attention to the sounds and smells of taking a shower.
3. Mindful colouring books are still big news and can help you take a few moments of respite without having to sit still. Indulging in a creative pursuit has been proven to help relax the mind and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, so even if you’re indulging in other art forms such as painting, pottery or drawing, you’ll likely still feel the effects.
4. Be mindful of your thoughts, without judging them. This tip comes from the team at Calm, noting that: “Recognising our judgmental tendencies is the first step towards softening them and developing more acceptance, patience and compassion.” To start doing this, the experts advise: “Practice being aware and accepting of whatever thoughts come up. Give it your full attention and full acceptance how ever it appears. The goal isn’t to achieve any particular feeling, thought or state. It’s merely to observe what’s happening [or what you’re thinking] in the present moment.”
5. Use daily cues and reminders to be mindful. Remembering to be mindful each day can be tricky at first, especially when life is busy. So to help you keep up the habit, the team at Headspace suggests creating cues or memory triggers for yourself. Whether it’s a blank Post-it on the back of the door to remind you to be mindful as you begin walking or a sticker on the back of your phone, these can help you remember to stop, take a moment and engage with your thoughts or surroundings.
Ready to try some mindful meditation? Get comfortable and then give the video below from Calm a go.