Mindfulness and Mental Health
While there is no universal definition of mental wellbeing, we can describe it as a combination of how we feel, including our emotions and life satisfaction, and how we function, for example in our relationships with others, with personal control, our sense of purpose in life and our independence . It is not always easy to maintain good mental wellbeing, as we all have days where we do not feel our best. Sometimes we encounter things in life that may challenge or negatively influence our mental wellbeing, such as stressful life events, peer rejection or isolation, poor physical health, poverty, discrimination, abuse, neglect, or a lack of support from family and/or friends . Many of these experiences are out of our personal control, yet they can make it more difficult to feel good about ourselves, feel connected to others, cope with challenges, or make the most of our lives. As a consequence, negative or painful emotions are unavoidable, and are something that anyone can experience regardless of who they are.
Though most of the time the feelings will pass, at the time they can feel ceaseless or become overwhelming. Mindfulness is a tool we can use to help us deal with negative emotions in order to improve our overall mental wellbeing, and it can also help with a number of mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, addictive behaviours such as alcohol or substance misuse and gambling, and physical problems like hypertension, heart disease and chronic pain . As mindfulness has become a more popular topic of discussion in recent years, it can be helpful to try to understand what it really means to be mindful in everyday life, what it may look like, and how it can help.
It is easy to get caught up in the stresses of everyday life, and as many of us have a lot of things to think about, sometimes we may not seem to get a chance to stop and notice our environments, both external and internal. We may become engrossed in our thoughts and lost in our mental landscape, which tends to take us out of the present moment. We can become so distracted or mentally preoccupied that we lose touch of what we are physically feeling and miss out on the full extent of what we experience. Mindfulness is not about eliminating all thoughts, being happy all the time, or avoiding negative emotions, but appreciating things as they are and the purpose they serve.
Noticing our external environment:
Paying more attention to the present moment can help us to enjoy life more and understand ourselves better. This includes paying attention to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes around us, and reconnecting with ourselves by noticing the different sensations we experience. When we become more aware of the present moment, we can start to appreciate things that we have been taking for granted, even things as simple as the sound of rain or the feel of clothes on our skin as we move. For example, we can be mindful whilst eating, by paying attention to how different foods taste and feel, such as the warmth of a cup of tea or the crunch of an apple. Noticing the different sensations that we encounter in everyday life can allow us to slow down and feel more grounded in our surroundings, so that we can feel more connected to ourselves and others.
Noticing our internal environment:
Mindfulness also allows us to take a step back and observe our thoughts, feelings, and reactions to things. Taking the time to notice when we start to become entangled in patterns of negative thinking gives us the opportunity to evaluate whether such thoughts are beneficial to our mental wellbeing. It is important to note that the focus and attention we pay to our inner cognitions must be done with purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally . By noticing and naming our thoughts and feelings, we can learn to deal with issues more productively. For example, before an exam or presentation, we may notice feelings of anxiety. By identifying and acknowledging the anxiety, we can accept that it is a natural and understandable emotion to feel in this situation. We can then identify the anxious thoughts, such as “I’m going to fail this exam” and we can choose to let go of them without judging ourselves or concluding that the worst possible outcome is inevitable. This can be done by redirecting our attention to our breathing and allowing the thoughts to pass. In this way, mindfulness empowers us with the understanding that thoughts are simply "mental events" that do not have to control us .
This may seem difficult at first, but like many things in life, mindfulness is a practical skill that can be learnt, and the more we practise it, the easier it becomes. As we practise mindfulness, we develop and strengthen the neural pathways in the brain associated with being mindful, which over time makes it easier to be fully in the present moment .
So, how can we be more mindful?
Aside from paying attention in each moment, we can set aside time to practice being in a ‘mindful state’. Common ways to do this are through different types of meditation, yoga, or focusing on our breathing. These practices can be learnt independently through self-directed practice at home or guided in a group or one-to-one setting with a trained mindfulness coach. There are also specific mindfulness-based therapies and interventions that have been developed for mental health issues:
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to prevent relapse in recurrent depression. It combines mindfulness techniques, like meditation, breathing exercises, and stretching, with elements from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help break the negative thought patterns that are characteristic of recurrent depression .
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) aims to address prolonged periods of stress that can lead to poor mental and physical health. MBSR can be helpful as a single treatment to manage stress in individuals who do not experience mental ill health, as well as a joint intervention with other treatments for people who have symptoms of anxiety and panic disorders or physical issues such as chronic pain .
At Surrey Therapy Practice, we offer MSBR courses involving various mindfulness practices and exercises, as well as an exploration of how to be more mindful in everyday life. This can help to improve the ability to recover more quickly from challenging situations by developing practical self-care tools that help build resilience. The psychologists and CBT therapists at our practice can integrate mindfulness-based practices into the skills learned in therapy where this is helpful and useful for people. Mindfulness is used in a number of psychological approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT). If you or someone you know is interested in mindfulness therapy, please get in touch and make an enquiry here.