Do you ever feel like you’re in autopilot mode? Maybe you’re at work, running some errands, or just whipping up a quick dinner, but instead of focusing on the task at hand, your mind drifts elsewhere.
It’s easy to rush through life without noticing too much. You might become engrossed in obsessive thoughts — perhaps you start ruminating over the past or fret about the future — and, all the while, life keeps ticking along.
Not only can this leave you feeling anxious and edgy, but you might start to feel like you’re not living in the present moment. Like life is passing you by.
This is where mindfulness could be a real game-changer.
What is mindfulness?
At its core, mindfulness is all about being fully present and engaged in the present moment, without distraction or judgement.
When we practice mindfulness, we’re attentive to what’s happening, what we’re doing and the space we’re moving through. Even if our thoughts briefly wander, we can always snap back to the here and now.
Mindfulness encourages us to have a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, body sensations, as well as our environment — even if our conclusions aren’t always positive. For that reason, another important aspect of mindfulness revolves around the idea of acceptance and compassion.
Let’s face it: life has its fair share of ups and downs and most of us have issues that we may struggle to let go of.
With this in mind, mindfulness asks us to notice and accept the current situation as it is, without trying to push it away or cling to it. In doing so, it can help us deal with our problems more productively.
For instance, we might be able to question whether brooding over our problems will actually solve them or whether we’re simply getting entangled in our own thoughts.
It may also allow us to take a step back and see the big picture. When we’re more attentive to our surroundings, we might start to see that our thoughts are, just that — thoughts. Sometimes they’re not even accurate or based on fact.
When we’re mindful, we might start to experience things afresh that we’ve been taking for granted. And, most importantly, we can start making positive, practical changes in our lives.
Is mindfulness for me?
Mindfulness can be a helpful addition to other therapy techniques. But it’s not the answer for everyone — and that’s okay.
But for other people — especially those with more complex mental illnesses — other types of therapy are better suited.
There are other factors at play too. You might not be able to sit for long periods of time or focus on your breath, if you have breathing problems or mobility issues, for instance.
Maybe it’s too distressing to focus on your current thoughts, Or, perhaps, quite simply, mindfulness doesn’t quite click for you.
If that’s the case, don’t be discouraged. There are plenty of therapy techniques out there. It’s all about finding the one that works best for you.
How can I practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness has traditionally been associated with meditation, but the truth is we can choose to be mindful any place, any time. Here are just a few ways we can incorporate mindfulness into our day-to-day lives:
Practice mindful meditation
When you think of mindfulness your mind may automatically jump to meditation — and it’s easy to see why. From reducing stress to improving sleep, there are thousands of studies that suggest that meditation works wonders.
If you don’t know where to start, Headspace and Calm have plenty of guided exercises to help you unwind the mind. Or for therapy-based mindful meditations, you can tune into Self-care, our audio and video therapy library.
Concentrate on your breathing
Every day we breathe in and out, without even thinking about it. However, focusing on our breath — the inhale and the exhale — is a great way to tune into the body and unwind the mind. For instance, you might concentrate on the sensation of your lungs expanding as you inhale. Or perhaps you become aware that the air is cooler as you breathe in and slightly warmer as you breathe out. There’s no right or wrong answer, whatever you notice is fine. It’s all about allowing your breath to take centre stage.
Go to therapy
Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy blends traditional Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with mindfulness techniques, like meditation and breathing exercises, to help you break free from negative thinking patterns.
It’s a valuable tool for people who have recurring episodes of depression and unhappiness. That’s because it helps you zero in on the present moment rather than fretting about the past or what’s around the corner.
Take a mindful approach to the everyday
Mindfulness is often seen as synonymous with meditation and breathing. But, as nice as those things are, there are ways we can approach even the mundane in life with mindfulness and care.
Mindfulness can be applied to anything you do in the waking hours, from going for a walk outdoors to chowing down on your lunch — just so long as you do it mindfully.
And, who knows, it might just open you up to a whole host of new sensations. Perhaps you start to appreciate the crisp morning air on your daily walk or spot wildlife or lush greenery that you never noticed before.
Maybe, if you take time to slow down and really savour the flavours of your dinner, you might awaken your senses and rediscover your body’s cues for hunger.
By picking an activity we engage with daily and completing it mindfully we’ll probably begin to feel more present and attentive to day-to-day life.
Tune in to the body
When you’re entangled in your thoughts, it’s easy to lose touch with how the body is feeling. You might be completely unaware that you’ve got a knot in your back, that your legs feel stiff or that you’ve got a throbbing headache, for instance. This is where Body Scan can help.
This guided exercise asks you to pay full attention to each part of the body — noticing any aches, pains, tensions or any other discomfort you may be experiencing. You scan your body, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. And by getting to know your discomfort you may find it much easier to release any tension you are carrying.
For more help, tune into the ‘Body Scan’ episode of Self-care.
Have you ever tried journaling? Writing down your thoughts is a powerful way to slow down the mind and be more present. And all you need to do it is a pen, paper, and a quiet moment to think.
Journaling provides a safe space where you can make sense of your thoughts. It can be a confidante in times of stress. Plus, you might find that it helps you become more conscious of your surroundings and relationships.
More than anything, though, it’s a great way to open an honest dialogue with yourself and to pay more attention to the little things in life.
Start the day right
When your alarm rings in the morning, do you jump out of bed and feel ready to face the day? Or do you curl under the duvets, smack the snooze button and remain in autopilot mode until you’ve gulped down a few coffees?
If it’s the latter, it might be worth incorporating some mindfulness into your morning routine.
Next time you wake up, try and set an intention for the day. This isn’t a goal or a to-do list that you’re pressuring yourself to complete. There’s no required ‘result’.
You’re simply asking yourself how you want to be, live and show up today. For example, you might decide to let go of a grudge or regret. Or you may decide to be patient and compassionate with yourself.
Keep this intention in mind and check in with yourself periodically throughout the day. Hopefully, it helps you live life more deliberately and authentically.
As human beings, we all have a “negativity bias”. This means our brains are hardwired to pay attention to information that scares us or that we perceive to be a threat.
Our naturally negative minds can make us believe that the world is against us. It’s like we’re wearing blinkers, and we can only focus on what we don’t have or what we should be doing.
When we’re in this headspace, we may only realise what we took for granted when we’re faced with real hardship. Because, more often than not, it’s the little, everyday things that are truly a gift.
This is where gratitude can really help. Even in tough moments, we can choose to be grateful for the good things in our lives — whether that’s a loving family member or friend, a beautiful sunny day, or the simple pleasure of a good cup of coffee. Research suggests that gratitude can make us feel happier, but it also gives us the opportunity to be more aware of our current situation.
Tips for getting the most out of mindfulness
If you’re new to mindfulness, it might seem a little strange at first. So here are a few tips to help you get the most out of it:
- Pay attention. Mindfulness is all about concentrating on the little, everyday moments in life. So be present. Let’s say you’re eating a meal. Pay special attention to the texture and the taste. Really savour every mouthful. Alternatively, if you’re in the shower, take time to appreciate the feeling of the water on your skin.
- Notice. It’s natural for the mind to wander. Simply notice where your thoughts have drifted to, and be conscious of how they impact your day-to-day life.
- Accept. As you become more aware of your emotions and the sensations in your body, take a moment to accept them. Approach them with curiosity and understanding. But most importantly, remember that all emotions are valid — even the difficult ones. Although it may not feel like it, they still serve a purpose.
- Be kind to your mind. If you get caught up in your thoughts, don’t be so hard on yourself. Just gently bring your attention back to the here and now.
- Practice it daily. It’s difficult to be good at something on your first try. You wouldn’t belittle a child who is learning to ride a bike, so if you’re struggling to practice mindfulness, show yourself some compassion and self-love.