In today’s frantic world, multitasking is a way of life. But in our busy rush to tick off items on our to-do list, it’s easy to lose sight of the here and now. We hurtle through our lives doing a thousand things at once paying scant attention to how we feel – not good for body, mind or soul. And that’s where mindfulness comes in. It offers the perfect antidote to our frazzled existence. But what does it involve? And why is something so apparently alternative attracting so much interest?
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness simply means becoming more aware of and accepting your thoughts and feelings in the present by focusing on your breathing. Anyone can do it, any time, anywhere.
A clutch of studies has shown that mindfulness can ease problems ranging from stress, anxiety and fatigue to high blood pressure and pain from chronic inflammatory conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and arthritis. The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) gave it the thumbs-up for treating depression. And comedian turned psychotherapist Ruby Wax credits it with helping her to overcome a lifetime of the blues.
‘Put simply, mindfulness means training your brain to pay attention in the present moment, without judgment, to things as they are,’ says mindfulness expert, Alex Newte Hardie. ‘It helps us connect to our lives as they are unfolding, rather than being distracted by thoughts of the past and worries about the future.
‘It also helps to improve our ability to recognise the, often unconscious, thoughts and emotions that drive our behaviour, enabling us to break old patterns,’ she adds. And this can have a powerful effect. Simply learning to focus our energy and attention on one task at a time enables us not only to be more productive in our daily lives, but also, when the time comes, to switch off.
Unlimited access to a qualified GP with Saga Health Insurance - you'll have access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to a GP consultation service. Find out more about our GP phone service.
Mindfulness, however, is not about tuning out and turning off. ‘It is a discipline that has to be practised,’ says consultant psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher Dr Christine Dunkley. ‘It is about the three “As”. Attention –being in control of your life rather than letting it control you; Awareness – becoming aware of the uninvited actions of your mind; and Acceptance – accepting the present moment.’
Nor is it just for the young. ‘Mindfulness is a skill we all can learn whether young or old. Indeed, as we age it becomes more important to be mindful,’ says Dunkley. ‘As the years go by, we can lapse into absent-mindedness, which is the exact opposite of being mindful. We all want to remain alert for as long as possible, so training our mind to be alive to the present moment is vital,’ she explains.
As time passes we are also more likely to adopt familiar routines, which can sometimes take up a huge amount of time, and when looked back at may seem like nothing much has happened. ‘Mindfulness makes us more aware that every moment is different, we have never actually been here before. It teaches us to experience the world through our senses rather than through our assumptions. You may go shopping every Tuesday and go in the same shops, but each trip is unlike any other,’ says Dunkley.
The health benefits of mindfulness
Various studies show that mindfulness can ease health problems ranging from anxiety and stress to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). ‘One study found that after six to eight weeks of practice you actually make changes to the structure of the brain, including reducing the over-reactivity of the amygdala, the brain’s stress or “fight or flight centre”, and the thickening of areas associated with memory, concentration and decision-making,’ says Newte Hardie.
Research is also starting to show that mindfulness can help us to manage pain, and beat insomnia, as well as supporting the immune system. And the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which assesses treatments that can be offered on the NHS, has given it the thumbs-up as an effective treatment for depression.
So how do you get started?
Although its origins lie in Eastern meditation, you don’t need any equipment, mantras, incense, fancy bells or even a quiet room to practise mindfulness. ‘Anyone can be mindful without reading a book or consulting a teacher,’ says Dunkley. You can start by just inviting your mind to focus on one thing and when it wanders (as minds do) gently guiding it back to the moment.
That said, many experts including Dr Danny Penman, co-author of Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, suggests that the best way to get on the mindfulness trail is to focus on your breath for five to ten minutes in the morning, three to five times a week (see exercise below). ‘Mindful breathing teaches you to breathe freely and can dramatically lower stress levels, relax and calm you down,’ he says. ‘What’s more, it can be done anywhere, any time with instant results.’
If, however, you are after a more structured approach to mindfulness or the support of an experienced teacher, there are plenty of courses and resources you can tap into (see below).
The following exercise demonstrates the basic technique of breathing with awareness and takes just a few minutes. ‘Doing it for just five to ten minutes a day can have a significant benefit for overall mental health and wellbeing,’ says Penman.
1 Sit erect but relaxed on a straight-backed chair, feet flat on the floor. Alternatively, lie on a mat or blanket on the floor, or on your bed. Allow your arms and hands to relax.
2 Gently close your eyes and focus your awareness on your breath as it flows into and out of your body. Feel the sensations the air makes as it flows through your mouth or nose, down your throat, into your windpipe and into your lungs.
3 Feel your chest and belly expand and subside as you breathe naturally in and out. Focus your awareness on where the sensations are strongest. Stay in contact with each in-breath and out-breath. Observe them without trying to alter them in any way or expecting anything special to happen.
4 When your mind wanders, gently shepherd it back to the breath. Try not to criticise yourself. Minds wander. It’s what they do. The act of realising that your mind has wandered – and encouraging it to return to focus on the breath – is central to the practice of mindfulness.
5 Your mind may or may not become calm. If it does, this may be only short-lived. It may become filled with thoughts or powerful emotions such as fear, anger, stress or love. These may also be fleeting. Whatever happens, observe without reacting or trying to change anything. Gently return your awareness back to the sensations of the breath again and again.
6 After a few minutes, or longer if you prefer, gently open your eyes and take in your surroundings.
Here’s how to regain your inner calm
Our daily lives may be full of stressors outside our control, but we create a lot of unnecessary stress for ourselves by living our lives on autopilot, moving mindlessly from task to task, preoccupied in thoughts of what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future. The result? We become slowly wound up, tired or emotional without even being aware of it.
‘By intentionally taking a minute to be in the present, to become aware of our surroundings, our internal chatter and emotions as they pass through our minds, we can redirect attention to the task at hand and significantly reduce the levels of harmful stress hormones circulating in our body,’ says mindfulness expert Alex Newte Hardie (alexnh.com). Here’s our simple guide to living in the present.
1 Notice your surroundings
Wherever you are going – walking to work, to the shops or around the park – pay attention to what is around you, even in a town or city. As you move, notice the changing sensations in your feet, legs and arms or try taking in the sensory qualities of objects around you – the colours, shapes, and movement of the trees, the noise of the cars passing, the sound of a police siren.
‘Gentle mindful movement such as walking gets mind and body working together like an orchestra and enhances life experience, health and wellbeing,’ says chartered coaching psychologist, author and mindfulness practitioner, Hugh O’ Donovan.
2 Tune in to your emotions
Standing in a queue, being stuck in a traffic jam, waiting for the bank to answer your call can be extremely frustrating. Turn these moments to your advantage by becoming aware of and acknowledging your thoughts without being drawn into them. Start by tuning into any emotions present in your mind. Just label them – anger, fear, love, hate, worry –noticing any sensations they create in your body. Focus on breathing in and out, noticing your emotions without trying to change them – simply let them be. This will help you to de-stress and come out of ‘doing mode’ into ‘being mode’.
3 Follow your passion
Be it sewing, gardening, cooking or DIY, spending time doing what you love keeps you focused on the now. Think about it – take your eye off the job and you risk things going wrong. ‘When doing any of these things, feel the materials in your hands, let your eyes take in the colours you are using, notice the differing aromas and the sounds of the particular task,’ advises consultant psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher Christine Dunkley (christinedunkley.com).
4 Adopt a mantra
If your thoughts keep rushing ahead or wandering back to the past, adopting a word, phrase or ‘mantra’ that you can access and mentally repeat is a great way to avoid getting stuck in past, unhelpful mindsets or becoming overwhelmed by future fears. It brings you back to the present and quietens a chattering mind in an instant. Choose something that resonates with you, such as, ‘It’s always now’, or ‘Nothing is permanent’, or that favourite Julian of Norwich quote, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’, or the Buddhist saying, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ or simply a meaningless word.
5 Be curious
Noticing new things grounds you firmly in the present. So, next time you go for a walk, take a different route down a side street you have never been down before. Take in the houses, the flowers in the front gardens, the cobbles on the street.
Alternatively, when travelling by bus or train, notice the passing scenes outside the window as if it's the first time you have seen them. Observing the world with fresh eyes makes you realise everything is different each time.
6 Pay attention to flavour
The tang of a lemon, the spice of a curry, the crunch of a pizza crust, the silkiness of an avocado: paying attention to the details of food is a great way to focus on the now. As well as having a dedicated place to eat – the kitchen or the dining area – it can also help you stay focused. Really notice what you are eating: its shape, texture, colour, touch and smell. As you take a bite, notice the taste, the sounds it makes and how it feels in your mouth.
7 Become a single tasker
Talking on your mobile while doing the dishes, watching TV while you eat your dinner, stopping what you’re doing to check emails or text messages, constantly checking your Facebook or other social media account takes you out of the present moment. ‘Make a list, prioritise what needs doing and work through these one by one,’ says Dr Tony Lloyd, psychologist, adviser to Equazen and head of the ADHD Foundation. It’s time to ditch multitasking and switch your focus to the task in hand – one thing at a time now.
8 Stick with it
However you spend your day, adopt a mindful approach to whatever you’re doing – regard each moment as it unfolds as an opportunity to be present. When washing up, for example, feel the water, the plates and the sensation in your hands, in the shower focus on the water, its temperature, the patterns it makes, the sound and sensation on your skin. Finally, when making a cuppa tune in to the sounds, the smells, the texture of the tea, the weight of the spoon, the cup and the kettle. Take in the colour of the brew, find somewhere quiet and simply sit for a moment before sipping slowly.
9 Breathe well
Close your eyes, slow your breathing and let your mind wander. If thoughts or worries try to push their way to the front of your mind, acknowledge them, but don’t dwell on them. Instead, gently guide your mind back to the moment by focusing on your breathing, or gently releasing tension wherever you sense it. ‘Slowing your breathing and trying to inhale from your diaphragm rather than the top of your lungs is a great way to relieve stress,’ says Dr Lloyd.
Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman (Piatkus).
Using Mindfulness Skills in Everyday Life: A Practical Guide by Christine Dunkley and Maggie Stanton (Routledge).
A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax (Penguin Life)
The Art of Breathing by Dr Danny Penman (HQ)
For more information…