Mindfulness courses have sprung up everywhere, books have been published, apps created, even the UK’s National Health Service prescribes it.
The aim is to help people take better care of themselves and get more out of life by learning to handle stress brought on by challenging emotions, moods, relationships or physical feelings.
Although Mindfulness uses some meditation techniques, it differs from meditation in a number of ways. While similar in the early stages in that both encourage conscious breathing and allow thoughts to drift by, meditation is based on Buddhism, spiritualism, karma, yoga and a withdrawal from your thoughts and the world.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, especially when more advanced, encourages you to be mindful. In other words, to pay attention. Its roots are more related to psychology, it lacks the spirituality of meditation and teaches a focus on the investigation and acknowledgement of your thoughts. It is also much more flexible because meditation takes time and requires people to sit, often cross-legged, to do it, while Mindfulness can be made a part of daily life and relates more to our actions, thoughts and emotions.
So what exactly do the techniques of Mindfulness involve?
Stress tells us to watch out, keep on our guard and activates the part of our brains that can set off a rush of adrenaline and the ‘fight or flight’ response. The exercises used in Mindfulness aim to counteract these feelings. Focusing on breathing, concentrating on elements of the natural world, focused listening, immersing yourself in activities and appreciating the people and things around you, are all employed to block the over-thinking that we tend to do when we are anxious or stressed about something, in order to make way for more positive thoughts.
While this may all sound as clear as mud and rather nebulous to the sceptical or totally relaxed individual, studies have found that Mindfulness programmes, where participants learn techniques in daily life over the course of several weeks, or more formally in weekly classes, can bring about reductions in stress and improvements in mood.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, the techniques used can result in increased activity in the area of the brain associated with positive emotion, the pre-frontal cortex, which is less active in those with depression.
Scores of studies have shown changes in brain wave activity during Mindfulness meditation and researchers have found that areas of the brain linked to emotional regulation are larger in people who have meditated regularly for five years.
Evidence also shows that Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can, on average, reduce the risk of recurrence of depression for people by 43%.
Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, said that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment and that the methods used can be an antedote to the “tunnel vision” that can develop in our daily lives, especially when we are busy, stressed or tired.
The techniques employed involve becoming more aware of the present moment by using one’s senses as well as the thoughts and feelings that occur from one moment to the next.
“It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour,” Williams says.
“An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment.”
Although not miracle cures for anxiety, concentrating on sensations as simple as the feel of a banister as we walk upstairs, a door knob as we open a door, the sight of leaves on a tree or the details of a flower, can place people in the moment.
“Awareness of this kind doesn’t start by trying to change or fix anything,” says Williams.
“It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.”