Mindfulness: What Is It and How Does It Help Your Mental Health?

The concept of mindfulness has reached beyond the world of psychology and into popular culture, with the rising popularity of mindfulness smartphone apps, mindfulness classes and a plethora of websites giving inspiration on mindful living.

What is mindfulness? 

Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening in the present moment, without getting drawn into thoughts of the past or future, and without judging what is going on. Sound too easy? Well, if you spend a day noticing what thoughts cross your mind, you will probably find you are rarely focused completely on what you are doing right now. You might be surprised at how many anxious or worrying thoughts you have about what could happen and what has already happened – and on how things should be instead! These thoughts can lead you away from the enjoyment and fulfilment that is available to you right now, and can cause stress, anxiety and even depression.

How can mindfulness help?

Mindfulness can help to reduce the amount of time you spend thinking about negative events or emotions and gives you a way to think differently about what happens in your life. One thing that contributes to depression is rumination. Rumination is compulsively focusing on the symptoms of your distress, what might be causing it and what could happen as a result. In this mindset, it is difficult to see solutions, but mindfulness has been shown to reduce rumination and in this way help you to see a new way forward (Deyo et al, 2009). Practising mindfulness also gives you more space to choose your emotional reactions and, therefore, have more control over them, which improves your relationships both at work and in your private life. And greater relationship satisfaction has a positive effect on mental health.

Therapy Options

In therapy, mindfulness helps you to gain a greater awareness of unhelpful patterns that are present in your everyday life and that stop you from making the changes you need. Mindfulness-integrated Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (MiCBT) is a practical application of the mindfulness concept to change the thoughts, attitudes and behaviour that lead to depression. It was created by three psychologists over a decade ago and teaches people to disengage from the thought patterns that keep them trapped in depression.

MiCBT has been shown to reduce the number of depression relapses as well as to reduce anxiety – in fact, according to research conducted in 2014 MiCBT can half the risk of future depression in people who have had several depression episodes. Othe researchers (Davis & Hayes, 2012) have found that MiCBT and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction can help to change the underlying emotional and thinking processes that contribute to many mental health issues.

How do you get started with mindfulness at home?

It’s a good idea to set aside a bit of time to practise mindfulness meditation before you bring mindfulness into your everyday life. Sit in a comfortable position for 15 or 20 minutes and focus on your breath, noticing how it moves in and out of your body. You can count your breaths or use a mindfulness smartphone app to give you a focus and talk you through your mindfulness meditation.

Once this is natural, you can add mindfulness of your body sensations, concentrating on how your body feels right now. You can practise mindfulness of breathing no matter what you are doing – driving, walking, working, cleaning the house. Simply focus on your breathing and return to an awareness of your breath every time your mind wanders off. The aim is not to clear your mind of all thoughts, but to be aware of the thoughts you are having and find more space and choice around them.

Mindfulness enables you to observe yourself and notice the effects that certain thoughts have on your body and mind. Thinking about a looming big meeting at work could have you tensing your shoulders and frowning, but if you are mindful, you will notice this, and can make a conscious effort to breathe deeply and relax your body. This stops you getting into a loop of anxiety. Mindful eating and mindful listening are other ways of bringing this practice into your everyday life.