In Mind Series: Mind full or Mindful?
Mindfulness practice can improve our resilience, enhance our attention, strengthen cognitive performance and boost our creativity.
Mindfulness has been practiced since ancient times in eastern traditions, but has more recently been studied by western health scientists. It has gained popularity in psychology as we have come to appreciate the many physical and mental health benefits that mindfulness practice can bring to our everyday lives.
“Mindfulness is about paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally”
Jon Kabat Zinn
Mindfulness practice directs our attention to being present in the moment, rather than being caught up in the past – ‘I should have…’ I wish that didn’t happen…’ or making future forecasts – “What if… I must make sure …’. When we are mindful, the contents of our mind match the reality of our present moment.
In mindfulness practice, we focus our attention on what is, as it is. We distinguish between the pain of our subjective experience, vs struggle – our resistance to that pain. When we respond mindfully in the moment, we can choose how we want to engage with our subjective experience – whether to chase an unhelpful thought or distressing emotion, or to let it pass. As we practice observing ourselves, rather than getting entangled in our thoughts and feelings, we become more able to keep the lights on in our pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for problem solving and making choices, and we are more able to deal with stress with a clear mind.
Mindfulness practice can help us to develop our capacity to deal with tough stuff. As we learn to observe ourselves and respond in the present moment, we develop our ability to put some space between ourselves and our experiences, to remember that they don’t define us, and to trust that, in time this too shall pass. Psychologists call this capacity to stand back a little from our thoughts, cognitive defusion, and it can help us to see the wood from the trees sometimes. Practising mindfulness can help us to regulate our distress in difficult times so that we can balance our emotions with our reason and stay psychologically flexible. As we practice mindfulness, we become more able to put our problems in context, consider different perspectives and be aware of the range of choices we have at any one time.
This ability to respond, rather than react in distress, strengthens our mental grit, as we learn about our capacity to deal with adversity and adapt to change. The more we practice this, the more trust we can place in our ability to cope with life’s challenges, and the less we need to future proof ourselves against potential adversities that might come our way. As the saying goes, a bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because its trust is not in the branch but in its own wings.
How will you practice mindfulness today? There are many approaches to mindfulness, and it takes practice. Perhaps you could set an alarm on your phone or attach it to a routine, like your drive to work, walking the dog, or doing the dishes. It’s important to practice mindfulness when we feel good, not just when feeling overwhelmed. Through mindfulness practice we can make awareness a habit that we can experience through all circumstances.
If you would like to know more about mindfulness, or think mindfulness practice could help you to deal with stress in your life, we can assist you to incorporate this into your self care practices to promote your mental health and wellbeing at Minds Online Psychology. For further information or to book an appointment with us, contact Clinical Psychologists Laura Keane and Jackie Cesareo at [email protected].