This is a brief introduction to mindfulness, so we encourage you to explore this topic further. There are a large number of wonderful books particularly by authors such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Bob Stahl, Thich Nhat Hanh and Mark Williams.
Mindfulness is non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. What does this mean and how does it relate to your health and wellbeing? You may find that your life feels constantly busy, your mind chattering about what you like and don't like, what you or others could do, should do, did do, didn't do, or wish you had done, regretting the past and worrying about the future. Even when you are resting, there is little space left in your busy mind to simply notice what is happening as it happens: the settling of your body, the flow of your breath, the sounds of birds, the scent of roses, the gentle breeze on your skin.
Your body is constantly responding automatically to the chatter of thoughts. This creates an emotional and physical roller coaster with your sympathetic nervous system reacting and changes occurring throughout the body: muscles tense, breathing becomes shallow, blood pressure rises, the digestive system shuts down, and the constant higher levels of stress hormones impairs the immune and hormonal systems that when working well keep you healthy and happy. This is the flight and fight stress response, and although it is highly valuable to protect you from true threat, for example, to remove you from the path of a bus, the stress response is not designed to continue endlessly reacting to thoughts that aren't true threats to your survival. In our modern world our sympathetic nervous systems are in overload.
Mindfulness will help you to be aware of what is happening in your body and mind. Are you driving your car or has it been carjacked by your thoughts and emotions? Mindfulness gives you a choice to override automatic and switch to manual, so you are truly in the driver's seat. Your thoughts and emotions can take the back seat! Quoting Victor Frankel "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is your power to choose your response. In our response lies your growth and freedom." Mindfulness will help you to create space so you can guide your own unique journey.
Mindfulness can be cultivated by meditation, mindful movement, walking with awareness and during everyday activities by bringing awareness to a focus point in the present moment. This could be your breathing, sounds, sensations in your body or the flow of your thoughts. Non-judgmental awareness means you notice what you are experiencing just as it is with kindness and compassion, without thinking about it, labelling it, wishing it was different or judging it as good or bad. You are levelling off the roller coaster finding balance and equanimity. Mindfulness is simple, but it can be challenging in our busy world, so it is best to learn mindfulness with an experienced practitioner or in a comprehensive course such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.
People of all ages and from all walks of life practice mindfulness to help them get the most from their lives. You do not have to look any particular way or have any particular beliefs. Ask yourself - Do I often feel stressed or uptight? Do I feel that there is something more to life, but I don't know how to find it? Am I finding it difficult to cope with my life circumstances? Am I curious? If you answer yes to any of these questions, then you may wish to learn mindfulness. Take a look at the MBSR course page.
If you doubt yourself, you may find it helpful to know that many people before trying mindfulness say "I couldn't do it. My mind is too active" but simply noticing you are breathing, noticing you have a body, noticing that you have this active mind is mindfulness. There is no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. You are not trying to get rid of anything, change anything or create any particular experience so if you commit to practice; there is no possibility of failure. Like many before you, after practising for a while, you can discover for yourself whether it is a valuable tool in your life. But it is important to stick with it in the beginning. Learning mindfulness is like learning to do anything that is worthwhile, let's say you want to play golf. As you learn, at times it will be frustrating, challenging and unpredictable but you wouldn't expect to hit below par in your first game! And when you let down your guard and least expect it you hit a whole in one!
When you practice mindfulness, you are cultivating a calming of the nervous system and all the mental and physical benefits that this creates.You may have experienced moments in your life when you felt calm and peaceful, perhaps when you were in a beautiful place, listening to music, engaging in a hobby or just at random. During these times the calming nurturing parasympathetic system is activated allowing repair and restoration of your body systems. Mindfulness training will enable you to intentionally cultivate these moments.
Many people say they strive on stress and are unaware of the negative effects on their body. This may be you particularly if you are experiencing a range of body symptoms. You may end up at the doctors or physiotherapist with pain. Neck pain, back pain and headaches are all common responses to an overactive stress response. When you are examined there may be areas of tenderness and restricted movement, but often the root of the problem is not in the muscles and joints.
Injuries heal. Occasionally the body continues to experience pain well beyond the expected healing time. Your thoughts and emotions play a part here, as when the stress response is overactive the immune, and hormonal changes slow the body's ability to heal and sensitise the nervous system. Its like the volume switch is turned up. Using mindfulness strategies to learn to cope better with your symptoms will help to turn the volume down!
There are strong links between both the onset and extent of many illnesses with chronic stress. Every system of the body is effected by stress and when the stress response continues unchecked illness results. High blood pressure, digestive problems, inflammatory conditions and respiratory problems are all common problems that are effected by chronic stress. Quoting Jon Kabat-Zinn "As long as you are breathing there is more right with you than wrong". Mindfulness helps you to meet whatever circumstances you find, to bring kindness and compassion to yourself and gratitude to your body and all it does. And when you live each day, one moment at a time, you may just find that your illness changes too.
So where is the evidence? Mindfulness has its origin in ancient culture, particularly in Buddhist psychology yet it is now becoming accepted in our western healthcare system due to many years of supportive research. Scientists have shown that mindfulness decreases the flight and fight response and allows the calming parasympathetic nervous system to be activated, the systems of the body to repair and recuperate and the mind to focus, concentrate and with practice to quieten. Brain imaging shows that the brain changes in positive ways, with the development of the middle prefrontal cortex of their brain, the area responsible for character traits of empathy, intuition, emotional balance, body system regulation, fear modulation and morality. Brain hormones required for neuronal growth are stimulated paving the way for new pathways in the brain and the development of new health-enhancing behaviours.