Guest blog post by Dr Niamh Jensen, Clinical Psychologist
Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention. It is about being in the present moment and focusing your attention in an open, flexible and non-judgemental way. It does not just involve sustaining our attention, but also being able to deliberately shift our attention to other things when it is important or advantageous to do so.
In a car, we can sometimes drive for miles on “automatic pilot”, without really being consciously aware of what we are doing. In the same way, we can spend much of our lives on automatic pilot. We can easily get caught up in our pain and unpleasant emotions or hooked on particular thoughts or memories. This is normal human behaviour. However, when this happens, it can be harder to really engage with the people in our lives and activities that are most important and meaningful to us.
The American Psychological Association have reported health benefits associated with mindfulness which include reductions in stress, rumination and psychological distress and improvements in well being, coping, immune function and cognitive functioning, such as working memory, concentration, cognitive flexibility and information processing.
By practising mindfulness we can become more aware of our thoughts, feelings, pain or bodily sensations, and give ourselves the possibility of greater freedom and choice in the actions that we take in our lives. Being mindful allows us to have more psychological flexibility to choose how we would like to respond to challenging or unpleasant experiences in our lives, so that we are more often moving in the direction of our values.
Mindfulness practice can be formal or informal. It can be guided by a meditation teacher, audio track or self-driven. We can practice mindful movements during yoga, tai chi or other physical exercises.
Formal mindfulness exercises can include:
- Mindful breathing – noticing the pattern of your breathing and the sensations you feel in your body without trying to change your breathing or by focusing on a particular style of breathing, such as the fire breath or alternate nostril breathing
- Watching your thoughts flow, as if they are leaves on a stream, noticing if the stream stops and you are stuck on a particular thought. When you notice this, return your attention to the stream
- Focusing your attention on a body sensation and observing it as if you were a curious scientist
Opportunities for informal mindfulness in our daily lives could include:
- Mindfully eating a meal – slowing down to taste all of the different flavours and experience different textures. Perhaps even experience it through all five senses.
- Being mindful when walking outside – noticing the different sounds, colours or body sensations you experience
- Listening to music or dancing and really noticing all of the different instruments, sounds or rhythms
- Using a visual or tactile cue to remind you to connect to the present moment each time you see or touch a certain picture or object