What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a form of meditation. It is simply the ability to be fully present, fully aware, and be in the moment. Mindfulness is a form of being where the individual feels relaxed and present and completely in the here and now.
During mindfulness, the mind is fully aware of what is happening. This is important because, as humans, we often flit from the past to the present and miss being present in the moment. Learning mindfulness is important because we can focus and become more self-aware, overcoming potential triggers and avoiding anxiety.
Mindfulness can help people feel positive as it reduces future-thinking that can pave the way for anxiety. During feelings of positive emotions, there is more activity in the left frontal cortex, whereas negative emotions show an increase in activity in the right prefrontal cortex.
When our mind drifts, as it inevitably will, mindfulness can bring it back into the present. Mindfulness is innate- that means it is something we all possess and is something we can all do. Mindfulness can be cultivated through sitting, in a quiet place, or walking, even taking the train, bus, or while running. Over time and having practised being in the state, mindfulness can even be used in noisy environments to become calm. Mindfulness meditation can breed acceptance, suspend judgement, and harness creativity as it acts as a form of relaxation. When you are using mindfulness, you essentially train your brain in positivity.
v Innate. This means we all possess it. We can all cultivate it and we all do it anyway.
v Having the capacity to be present.
v Based on acceptance, not change.
v Transformative and can help harness our creativity.
Mindfulness is based on meditative methods and was originally derived from Buddhist meditation practices. It is now a science, and has only vague links to this history, meaning people from all faith groups can practise it. Because mindfulness is a meditation, it begins and ends in the body, not the mind, and it involves a degree of awareness of what is taking place in the body. This is because there is a mind-body link and the body and mind are interconnected, not two separate entities.
Because mindfulness involves a focus on what is taking place within the body, it can help breed relaxation as we can help prompt the mechanisms within our body that promote relaxation. For instance, through mindfulness, we may feel that we are feeling tense. We will then become aware of the position of our body and realise that we have to unhunch our shoulders, sit up straight, and release muscle tension.
What is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy?
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) combines both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness techniques to help individuals manage thoughts and emotions.
MBCT was originally developed by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale. It works to help people learn how to use cognitive methods and mindfulness meditation to interrupt automatic processes that lead to depression and/ or anxiety. In depression, an individual will feel both mental and physical symptoms, such as weariness, sluggishness, and so forth. Even when the depression subsides, if a low mood hits the individual this may, by way of triggering automated body and mind patterns, create another episode of depression by triggering negative memories and anxious thoughts about the future.
Feelings are not facts. MBCT helps clients to separate themselves from their thoughts and moods. By focusing on the now, individuals can stop the cycle of rumination where negative thoughts are replayed over and over again. They, essentially, can remind themselves that thoughts and feelings are not facts.
One of the main techniques in MBCT is the three-minute breathing space. This is a technique that can be incorporated anywhere and essentially focuses on what is going on at that very moment in time. It brings an awareness to the mind and body, in which the person can then stop any negative thoughts that may be happening too. It also allows for relaxation and the ability of just being present.
There are several issues treated with MBCT, and these include anxiety and depression. It is also an extremely useful tool to help manage stress and anger. It may also be an effective tool in treating eating disorders, bipolar and other psychiatric illnesses.
Mindfulness and Positive Psychology
Mindfulness has played a significant role in positive psychology, which is an emerging field of psychology that focuses on the science of happiness. MBCT and MBSR are used by clinical practitioners as additional tools in their kit to help treat mental illness.
In positive psychology, mindfulness has been used as a technique for anyone that wishes to increase their personal wellbeing. Because psychology and more specifically, positive psychology, has assessed the effectiveness and validity of mindfulness, it is no longer seen as a pseudoscientific technique or something to be sceptical of.
In one study, some positive psychology researchers integrated mindfulness into their programme as an intervention that would increase their participants' wellbeing. This combined programme was done entirely online, meaning that it would be an effective intervention for a global audience.
Mindfulness in the Present Day
One of the useful things about mindfulness is that it can be used to complement therapeutic techniques. It can also be done in a clinical setting, one-to-one, in a group, an exercise class, or even alone during the day on a walk or at your desk.
Mindfulness is so simple that anyone, anywhere, can do it. You can practise mindfulness while doing the dishes, brushing your teeth, or in a meeting. Mindfulness is so simple that it can fit into a single leaflet demonstrating what techniques to use.
While mindfulness can be used solely to become more mindful and more present, it can also be used for specific reasons, and various groups have gotten together to do this. For instance, the Mindful Warrior Project aims to help veterans increase their wellbeing post-combat, and education-based mindfulness helps children become more mindful and less stressed in the Youth Mindfulness Project.
To conclude, mindfulness is a universal technique with links to religious traditions, steeped in Eastern philosophy, and more recently, western thought. This means anyone, anywhere, can practise mindfulness techniques to increase their personal wellbeing.
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.”
Mindfulness and the Structure of the Brain
Research is showing us that mindfulness and meditation impact the brain in such a way that it changes the structure of the brain. This change is known as neuroplasticity and allows us, through mindfulness, to become our very own neuroplasticians (surgeons that change our mindset). This means we can essentially rewire the brain. Studies have assessed the levels of neurotransmitters, hormones, and biomarkers and looked at the changes that take place. One study has found that eight weeks of meditation, such as mindfulness, can alter the stress-response for those that suffer from generalised anxiety. Changes in the level of stress hormones has concluded and supported this.
The study recruited 89 people who had a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD affects 10 million people in a given year, with up to 20 million suffering at some time in their life.
The participants were randomly assigned to either an eight-week MBSR programme or a Stress Management Education course. Prior to the intervention, participants performed a stressful exercise whereby their stress hormone levels were tested afterwards to assess the cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormone, as well as inflammatory proteins. Participant’s hormone levels were tested after the intervention, too. At the end of the eight-week programme, those that had been randomly assigned to the MBSR programme had significantly reduced stress hormones in comparison to the other group, who experienced a slight increase in stress hormones after the study.
Mindfulness-based training is both cost-effective and low stigma and can help promote healthy stress management and resilience. Mindfulness not only reduces physiological stress but a person’s perception of stress, too. A Harvard study in 2009, for instance, found that an eight-week course of MBSR saw a significant reduction in volume in the amygdala, which is the tiny structure in the brain that governs emotions and stress.
Furthermore, a meta-analytical study by John Hopkins University in 2013 found that meditation was linked to reduced anxiety and depression and that its benefits mean that it is a useful treatment for anyone wanting to reduce stress in their life.
“I have suffered much in my life… and most of it never happened.”
Individuals suffer because they ruminate (keep pondering and thinking) about negative things, experiences, and thoughts. What ifs and should haves hold people back. These thoughts are the most damaging. When you think of these negative thoughts, negative emotions that correspond with these thoughts are felt too. In this sense, it is important to stop the negative thoughts in their track to prevent feeling the negative emotions. Much of what we worry about does not ever happen, hence the above quotation. Our thoughts can free us or keep us bound. Therefore, it is important to think realistic thoughts.
We can challenge negative thoughts by using thought stopping. This includes saying the word “STOP” when a negative thought comes into your head. The elastic band method often works too. Clients can tie an elastic band around their wrist and flick it whenever a negative thought comes into their head.
There are four other ways to change and challenge negative thoughts. This includes reflection, disputing the irrational thoughts, being mindful, and focusing your attention on the present.
An example of challenging and disputing irrational thoughts and beliefs include changing our patterns of thinking. Instead of thinking, ‘I will never be able to do this’, say ‘with some effort, I can accomplish my goals.’ The first statement would make the individual feel hopeless, while the latter statement would encourage the client to feel more motivated.
The mind is powerful and has the ability to influence emotions and thoughts. This affects the way a person acts and behaves. Mindfulness, as well as CBT, focuses on clients becoming more aware of their thoughts and feelings and what triggers their behaviour.
Once a person becomes more acquainted or familiar with their thoughts and emotions, they realise that they are not defined by their thoughts and feelings. Their thoughts are not facts. They can be agreed with or denied. An example would be when you see that someone is unwell. Through empathy, you may feel sad for them, but this does not mean that you are personally sad because you feel sad for someone else. Your thoughts and feelings are not you. Feelings are not facts.
The more that you become aware of your emotions and thoughts, the quicker it is for you to detect the three strands of awareness: thoughts, emotions, and the self. This does not mean that your thoughts and feelings are not important; it just means that they are not your identity. Suppression or denial of thoughts and emotions may lead to neurotic behaviour, so it is always best to acknowledge that they exist but not to ruminate on them or see them as forging your identity.
The cognitive process is made up of far more than just how you think and feel. In that way, while thoughts and feelings may influence thinking, they don’t have to be the concrete reasons for your rationale. Mindfulness helps people evaluate and assess their present situation, rather than react within the moment. It encourages people not to react based on previous experience or assumptions and to take every moment as an individual situation.
We can use the analogy of a train to define mindfulness. Though a train approaches through a station platform, it will eventually pass through the station, much like the thoughts we have flooding through our brain (they pass through). The key is to allow the thoughts to pass through, rather than fearing them or trying to control them.
Mindfulness can also help people with their relationships by challenging longstanding behaviour between people. When repeat conflict arises, thoughts and feelings are often the same and lead to the same behaviour, meaning the cycle of conflict is difficult to stop. When a person engages in mindfulness, they can challenge those thoughts and become more self-aware, thus preventing the behaviour. The person applying mindfulness can assess their situation in a rationally and choose their behaviour accordingly, thus putting them in control.
Posture and Mindfulness
It is imperative to observe your posture. Body language and posture impact our emotions both positively and negatively. For instance, frowning can lead to negative feelings, whereas smiling can lead to an increase in positive emotions and feelings of happiness.
You may have heard of the power pose by Amy Cuddy. This is a pose where we stand tall with our shoulders wide and our hands on our hips to promote feelings of confidence.
Some posture-boosting tips:
v Choose a posture that suits the situation.
v Be mindful of your posture and do body checks, such as relaxing muscles where necessary.
v Look at your physical and mental state. For work, wear work attire and adopt business poses, and when in leisure, try and adopt a more relaxed routine.
v Always pause before responding. Take time to manage your state in situations, and change posture and poses, to influence your response.
v Music influences our mood. Focus on music that is uplifting.
This section focuses on errors in thinking. There are 7 types of errors in thinking:
1. Mind Reading
4. Emotional Reasoning
5. Excessive Self-Criticism
6. Making Demands
7. Only Noticing or Remembering Negative Aspects
We’ll look at each of these with an example:
1. Mind Reading
This involves wrongly assuming that others are thinking things about you. An example of this is: Charlotte thinks that her work colleagues think she is useless.
This is falsely predicting how things will happen. It usually results in a worst-case scenario style of thinking. It can lead to anxiety and stress. e.g. The bag lady phenomenon. Fearing of being left with nothing.
This can either be about the client or how the client thinks of another person. They use language like ‘’I always’ and ‘they never’. e.g. I always fail tests.
4. Emotional Reasoning
Relying too much on your feelings to make decisions. e.g. Feeling lonely so you call up an ex-partner.
5. Excessive Self-criticism
Focusing on your bad qualities and flaws and being hyper-critical of mistakes. e.g. I am stupid. I got a B in Maths in school.
6. Making Demands
This can involve making demands on yourself and others. It involves using words such as ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘ought’, etc. e.g. I’m busy, but I should see my friend for coffee. She might need my help with something.
7. Only Noticing or Remembering Negative Aspects
This is ignoring positive aspects while focusing on the negative aspects of the situation. The use of mental filtering means positive situations are forgotten. E.g. Marie goes on holiday with her friends. They have a wonderful time, but Marie has an argument with one of them. She remembers that aspect of the holiday and says she had an awful time.
Thinking errors can be positive or negative, but they are most likely negative and in need of challenging. The coach can highlight the client’s thinking errors by offering alternative thought patterns to challenge the thinking. The coach can help the client achieve more rational thinking styles by confronting the thinking errors and negative beliefs.
This is the chatter that goes on in the back of your mind. It reminds you of past failings, regrets, future worries, mental to-do lists, and worst-case scenarios for the future, projecting the fears from deep within.
This common mindfulness process is often taught to clients in mindfulness groups or sessions. It simply means walking down the street and observing all that is around you. You should focus on the colours, the sensations, your breathing, the wind and how it feels against your skin, etc. It brings you back to the now, and you will start to feel an appreciation of the beauty around you. Focus on your surroundings, such as any flowers you see or the sound of a bird’s tweet as it flies away.
The next stage is to teach visualisation. If the client cannot leave their home, or it is not feasible to take a walk, mindful visualisation can help. It means visualising walking down a street and imagining the serenity and beauty that is available.
Another technique is to teach the client positive behavioural change through mindfulness. This is where the client visualises or imagines walking down the street and sees someone they know on the opposite side, but the person walks on by without acknowledging their wave.
This will allow the client to check in with their feelings and find out how they feel about it, but also to challenge any irrational thoughts. They could challenge their perception by saying “well maybe the person didn’t see me” or “maybe they were having a bad day” rather than thinking they are not liked.
The Three-Minute Breathing Space
To perform the three-minute breathing space, you can:
1. For the first minute, ask yourself this: “how am I doing right now?” Then focus on the feelings, thoughts, and sensations that arise.
2. The second minute is spent on keeping awareness of breath.
3. The last-minute focuses on an expansion of attention to your breathing i.e. in and out and how the rest of the body feels as a result.
What is Stress?
Stress can be positive or negative. It is the individual’s inability to cope when facing a problematic situation or where a situation poses a threat that surpasses the individual’s ability to cope.
Stress is subjective. This means that it is often linked to how an individual perceives a stressor, which directly impacts on how stressed they feel. It is down to their thinking or perception of events. Positive stress is not harmful and can boost motivation, whereas negative stress can raise stress hormones, such as cortisol, that impact immunity.
Stress can be alleviated in a number of ways:
1. Reducing unnecessary stress
2. Channelling the stress into something positive
3. Releasing negative stress
4. Increase coping resources
5. Promote positive coping
6. Planning for the future
The ABC Model of Stress
The ABC model of stress was proposed by Albert Ellis, an American Psychologist. To sum up this model:
v A refers to the activating event; the event that causes the stress
v B refers to the beliefs that a person has about the event
v C refers to the consequence of this belief. This is usually the reaction.
If C is a negative reaction, then A becomes a problem. An example of this would be:
A: Man sees dog. (ACTIVATING EVENT)
B: He believes dogs are dangerous. (BELIEF)
C: He runs away when he sees them. (CONSEQUENCE).
Note that if the man runs away, he will never believe that dogs can be fluffy and cute. He may also pass on his phobia to his children. By introducing D, which stands for DISPUTATION, we can dispute the irrational beliefs, and E, which stands for EFFECTS, represent how the disputed beliefs can bring about new behaviour.
The ABCDE model is a form of Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy and looks to challenge faulty thinking, helping people think more reflectively and rationally.
Sorting Boxes Mindfulness Exercise for Stress Management
The following exercise is a technique used to manage stress by sorting your thoughts into separate boxes. It essentially compartmentalises our thinking:
1. Focus on your breathing.
2. Notice your thoughts, feelings and sensations.
3. Imagine three boxes titled thoughts, sensations and emotions.
4. Continue focusing on breathing and observe anything that comes into awareness.
5. Identify them as one of the three boxes: thoughts, sensations, emotions.
6. Clear your mind by emptying your thoughts into these boxes.
This exercise helps us to declutter our minds. It works well when stressed, as we can dump them into an imaginary bin (or boxes) too.
Mindfulness for Anger
This is a helpful step-by-step technique for managing anger:
1. Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed.
2. Take in a few deep breaths, completely filling your lungs.
3. Think of a time recently where you experienced anger. Allow yourself to experience that anger again.
4. Disregard any other feelings that come up, such as guilt and sadness
5. Focus on how you experience anger in your body. Where does it manifest?
6. Bring compassion to anger. Remind yourself that you are human, and it is natural to feel angry at times.
7. Say goodbye to the anger. Bring your attention back to your breath.
8. Reflect on the experience. Notice any sensations that this exercise brought up in your body. Think of what happened to the anger when you showed it compassion.
This exercise can help defuse chronic anger and manage emotions associated with bottled up anger, too.
Stress Management Mindfulness Techniques
1. Mindful walking: take a walk and embrace nature by being fully present on your walk, observing the world around you in its full capacity, while focusing on the sounds, feelings, colours and smells. Let thoughts drift and bring your awareness to the moment. Try and look for new things.
2. Mindful Listening: focus on the noises around you, the sound of the birds, the trees rustling, people talking, etc. Notice what sounds arise.
3. Mindful Brushing: this is being mindful when we brush our teeth. Focus on the art of brushing at this time instead of letting your mind wander.
4. Candle Meditation: sit and watch a candle. Don’t think about it, just watch it flicker and enjoy the simplicity of it all.
Mindfulness can bring relaxation anytime, anywhere. You could be on the train commuting to work or sat at your desk writing your assignment for this unit. Whatever it is, always bring mindfulness into the moment. Try this one:
Abdominal breathing: Focus on your breath, breathing in for the count of 4, hold for the count of 7, and breath out for the count of 8. This is known as 4-7-8 breathing and brings immediate relaxation. It also brings the focus of breathing back to the diaphragm instead of shallow chest breaths.