The Stress Resilient Mind Blog
Mindfulness for Stress & Anxiety Reduction
Mindfulness is an ancient form of mind training that builds qualities such as stability of focus, tranquillity, clarity, openness and contentment. Mindfulness first developed in Buddhism, but in recent years mindfulness based therapy (a secular form of mindfulness) has established itself, with research evidence showing it can help depression, anxiety, and symptoms linked to stress. Yet mindfulness is not itself a therapy, and nor is it a religious practice - it can help anyone, and it doesn't entail any particular belief system.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of being actively aware (or consciously paying attention) in the present moment, with a sense of openness, kindness and non-reactivity. Mindfulness can be practised formally in meditation, but it's also an attitude that you can bring to potentially any part of life, such as washing up or walking.
Generally mindfulness is easier when there is a specific object of focus, such as the breath (as in mindfulness of breathing meditation) or the experience of walking. But the focus can also be open - you just bring awareness to whatever arises in the mind.
Whilst the practice is to maintain focus, inevitably distractions arise. When this happens you just return to the focus without self-judgement. This is the real practice: noticing when the mind has wandered off, and non-judgementally returning to awareness. At a deeper level mindfulness means noticing how the mind wanders, how it operates, the underlying patterns of distraction (in psychology this is known as meta-cognitive awareness).
The Spirit Of Mindfulness
Beyond this bare definition, the Buddhist tradition gives us several illuminating metaphors for mindfulness:
- Being mindful is like walking with a bowl filled to the brim with oil balanced on your head. Moving with smoothness, grace and precision, not a drop is spilt. In other words this metaphor emphasises the balancing influence of mindfulness.
- Mindfulness practice is like climbing a tower, enabling you to see a long way. With mindfulness we gain perspective, clear-sightedness, and perhaps detachment.
- Mindfulness is like a strong post to which a wild animal is chained. The wild animal is the unruly mind. This metaphor emphasises the stabilising influence of mindfulness. A variation of this metaphor says that it's best to tether a wild horse with a long rope. Then the animal still has some freedom, plenty of space to move about it, and thus does not struggle and strain. As it gets used to captivity, the rope can be shortened - a metaphor for balanced effort (not too wilful, not too lax).
- Mindfulness is like a city gate keeper, who allows the good citizens to pass, but keeps out undesirable elements. Mindfulness protects the mind. (This metaphor emphasises that in Buddhism mindfulness is not separate from ethical awareness and practice.)
Purpose of Mindfulness
Why would you want to practice mindfulness? As with any training, the purpose is to develop skills, or qualities, or knowledge. Most people come to mindfulness wanting a bit more of qualities like stillness, calmness, clarity, openness, peace and contentment, and emotional positivity.
The Paradox of Mindfulness
Something of an incongruity starts to become apparent here: we want to develop qualities such as stillness and contentment, but the actual practice is simply to return to the focus, neither grasping after nor rejecting particular experiences.
Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn (who is the main figure responsible for establishing mindfulness as a secular health practice) defines mindfulness as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally, but he sometimes adds "as if your life depended on it". Yet being non-judgemental includes not getting at all hung up on whether you succeed or not.
This is the paradox: in mindfulness we hold to certain goals or purposes, but with complete impartiality - as if it didn't matter whether we achieve our purpose or not. As if we were just playing a game.
The Mindfulness Mindset
To be "successful" in mindfulness, we have to approach practice with the right attitude or mindset. It's not about applying effort in the normal sense of will-power, rather we're open to qualities arising naturally. We can encourage such qualities through openness, interest, curiosity, playfulness and imagination (i.e. we can imagine what peace, tranquillity etc. would feel like). We can savour the pleasures that do arise, without grasping after them, nor do we try to push away unpleasant experience.
Benefits of Mindfulness
According to this article from the American Psychological Association (APA) the empirically-supported benefits of mindfulness include:
- stress reduction
- reduced rumination and racing thoughts
- improved focus or attention
- improved working memory (holding things in mind)
- greater emotional resilience
- greater mental flexibility or adaptability
One of the reasons mindfulness is becoming so popular is that the benefits are backed by a growing body of scientific research. For example studies show that mindfulness can benefit anxiety and depression, as well as many other health conditions. In the UK, the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) now recommends mindfulness for depression (relapse prevention).
Probably the best-validated methods are mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn).
Some of the most interesting research shows that mindfulness induces neuroplastic change in the brain: i.e. brain imaging shows changes in mindfulness practitioners compared to controls, often after just a few weeks of practice. The changes are in brain regions known to be involved in executive function and emotional regulation such as the prefrontal cortex (focus, concentration) the amygdala (the brain's fear-triggering centre) and the insula (body awareness).
How Mindfulness Creates Change
Mindfulness practice stimulates neuroplastic change, which supports development of skills and mental resources including:
- self-awareness - this is the foundation of emotional intelligence
- focus (mindfulness strengthens the brain's "attention muscle", if you like)
- acceptance and letting go - this is probably the key psychological skill, and applies both to difficult feelings and emotions, and also to thoughts, beliefs and narratives that often play in our heads.
These skills are of course general and useful well beyond meditation practice.
What Makes Mindfulness Hard?
A lot of people try mindfulness but don't persist with it, even when they've benefited. Why should this be so? I suspect it's because we often experience the mind as out of control, overwhelming us with restless and distracting thoughts, or painful emotions, or urges to busy ourselves in endless activity. My own experience over years and even decades, is that I can spend much more time in distraction than in awareness. It's one thing to be accepting of this, but the bottom line is it's just not enjoyable, gratifying or very helpful.
The hard seems to be noticing when the mind has wandered off.
How Biofeedback Can Support Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a mind-body practice - we need to create the body states that favour the arising of positive mental qualities such as stillness and clarity.
Biofeedback supports mindfulness practice by giving objective feedback on physical changes, enriching our mind-body awareness and skills. For example it can flag changes associated with distractions. Given this feedback, the body can naturally and spontaneously learn, without the need for wilful effort from the thinking, judging mind. I've personally found that biofeedback can make meditation an easier, more engaging and more enjoyable experience, building your motivation to maintain a regular practice.
Learn Optimal Breathing with Biofeedback At Home
If you've struggled with mindfulness practice, you may find that adding biofeedback makes your practice more effective and more gratifying.
I offer an online video-based course in optimal breathing using biofeedback, and I also rent biofeedback devices for home use. Optimal breathing is a way of creating the most optimal brain states for mindfulness, as well as for stress management.
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