Exploring The World of Mindfulness: Why be Mindful, what are the benefits (Part 2)

Mindfulness has recently exploded and is highly popular across the UK.  There are lunch hour sessions available, hundreds of workshops, retreats, it is even being taught in schools. Everyone is talking about it. In this three part series, I will try to explain what it is, the benefits of it, dispel the many common myths around it, provide some of the evidence base for it and describe how to do it using different techniques. 

This is part 2 in a blog series about Mindfulness. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here.

Part 2: Why be Mindful, what are the benefits?

Mindfulness reduces rumination. Imagine your mind is always going to the past, which for many, can include difficult memories, or the future and worrying about something that might never happen or wondering what our lives will be like in a few months or even several years time.  If our minds are never in the moment, we not only miss out on those small moments of pleasure (as Nicole wrote about in the previous blog series) but we can live in a world that feels lonely, depressing even and gives rumination (when our thoughts get stuck on repeat) a playground in our minds!
 
Thoughts spiral, and incredibly quickly! Have you ever noticed that you can start with one small thought and after seconds they have spiralled to catastrophic levels? For example, starting with a thought about work, which leads to thinking about something you have not done yet, to remembering all the things on your to do list and within seconds you’re terrible at your job and your can’t do it because you’re useless! Mindfulness means we notice the first or second thought and can then stop them from spiralling by choosing to bring our mind back to the present. In other words, we have more control of our minds (Linehan, 2015). Sometimes, the daily distress we feel is due to constant rumination on the past, the future, what is and is not going right in our lives. We believe that rumination will help us solve our problems, when in fact it does the opposite! Rumination is part of the problem not the solution, studies have shown that how we think about and how much we dwell on things can not only cause anxiety and depression, it keeps it hanging around (Kinderman, Schwannauer, Pontin, & Tai, 2013; Williams, Teasdale, Segal & Kabat-Zinn, 2007). Mindfulness is beneficial here because it is the “exact antithesis to the type of ruminative thinking that makes low moods persist and return” (Williams et al., 2007, pp.47).  

Mindfulness is non-judgmental. We as humans judge everything! Whether we are saying something is good or bad, we automatically assume that things around us are not meeting up to some standard we (and the world) have set, which more often than not can never be achieved and results in further rumination and low mood. Mindfulness allows us to see things as they actually are, not how we believe they should be.

However! Many people have reported that mindfulness made them more distressed, or that it did not make them feel relaxed.  Mindfulness is not about relaxation or feeling better, it is about being. It’s about accepting what comes up, not judging it as good or bad, it just is.  Sometimes, life deals us a tough hand and we might not want to bring our mind to the present moment as it might not be very nice! So why be mindful? Well, imagine your life as a bucket (bear with me on this one!) and life and all its stressors are dripping into it. Try as we might, we cannot stop life from happening, good or bad. Our thoughts spiral: “what’s wrong with me?” and “other people are coping OK, why can’t I?” and “everyone else is better/prettier/happier” etc etc. We frantically think of solutions to solve the problem, to feel better. What might happen if we don’t notice the drips coming into our bucket…it will eventually overflow and sometimes, when life is really challenging, it can fill up really quickly! Mindfulness helps us to catch the drips so to speak, so we can notice how we feel, that we are getting stressed, swamped, struggling and let these things go, bring our minds back to focus where we want them to be and use strategies to cope with the drips before it gets too much.

Can it help me with my difficulties?

Well that depends on what you mean by ‘help me’. Mindfulness is not about feeling better (see below also) but when people ruminate, live on autopilot and judge themselves and their lives, these can lead to common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Mindfulness can help with all of these and more. 

Mindfulness is a core element of evidence based therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) as well as part of adapted therapies such as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).  It has an evidence base for a number of mental health and physical health difficulties such as anxiety and depression, (Baer, Smith, Hopkins, Kreitemeyer & Toney, 2006; Kabat-Zinn, et al., 1992), reducing ruminative thoughts (Jain, et al,. 2007), chronic pain (Way, et al., 2010) to name but a few. It has also been proven to help improve memory, reaction times and mental reaction times (Tang., et al., 2007) and increase activity in parts of the brain associated with positive feelings (Davidson, 2003).

Can Mindfulness make me feel worse?!

There are many misunderstandings about what mindfulness is and is not.  I will do my best to tease out some of the common ones and dispel any myths.

First, mindfulness is not about feeling better per say. There have been reports in some of the papers not too long ago about mindfulness causing people to feel more distressed or overwhelmed.  For example, the Guardian last year wrote about the “side effects” of mindfulness in an interesting article. As with anything, there will be people out there who have completed a quick workshop in mindfulness and then go on to teach it themselves. For some, this might be fine and they will never have a problem. However, mindfulness can take a long time to fully appreciate, it takes practice and experience to teach to others. I have been practicing it now for about six years and am still learning! 

There are many different ways to be mindful, different techniques that are useful for different difficulties and it requires a skilled practitioner to help you navigate them. For example, mindfulness for people who hear voices is different to mindfulness for anxiety. How you would use mindfulness to help people who experience emotions very intensely to sit with their emotions is very different to doing the same with someone who struggles to connect with their emotions. So, imagine you join a lunchtime class, with limited knowledge of mindfulness and expect to feel all relaxed coming out and the session that day is on sitting with emotions and you start to feel sad. You then have to go to work afterwards and no wonder you feel disappointed and perhaps distressed! Skilled practitioners will be able to guide you through these types of practices carefully and slowly, managing your expectations and helping you manage what comes up. So, it is always good to check what training and experience your mindfulness facilitator has before joining a class.

Second, mindfulness is not about examining raisins! In order to learn how to be mindful, we first have to learn the skill of mindfulness. This is usually taught in various different types of exercises, the raisin being a common one. These typically focus on either internal experiences such as emotions, the activity of the mind and the body, or external experiences such as sounds, tastes, objects.  These exercises are to get you practicing the skill, increasing your awareness and helping to embed mindfulness so that it begins to become more natural for you. A skilled practitioner will help you see how each different exercise can be useful in everyday life, for your specific needs as well as helping you to move your practices to more general things.

Third, mindfulness is not relaxation (sorry!). Mindfulness is about accepting whatever is in your present moment, not judging our thoughts or experiences, not trying to change them, but being with them. The aim is not to feel more relaxed, although sometimes this can be a natural consequence for people when they are more mindful. For example, if you find yourself ruminating on something in the past that makes you feel sad, then being mindful of this and returning your mind to your present moment may well make you feel less anxious etc.

Fourth, mindfulness is not distraction, or avoidance. For many, facing distressing or painful thoughts, memories and experiences is overwhelming, so we seek to avoid them or distract ourselves. I see many people who are struggling with their mental health and want to be “better”. When we explore triggers and what is keeping their struggle hanging around, a lot of it comes from desperately trying to not think about their distress. This absolutely makes sense, why would you want to think about the very thing that makes you feel bad? But, have you ever tried that one? Try not to think about strawberries, no really, don’t…..Can you do it? Probably not, not even if your life depended on it. So, the very act of not wanting to think about something, of not wanting to have anxiety/depression or whatever it is that is causing distress invariably keeps it hanging around. Research shows that the best way to keep having these experiences is to push them away (Wegner, Schneider, Carter, & White 1987).  Sadly, distraction is all too often taught to people as a way of coping with difficult experiences. Mindfulness helps us to take a step back and observe our thoughts and let them come and go (more on how to do this in the next blog), which actually enables them to go away rather than keeping them hanging around, trust me it really does!

Finally, mindfulness is not about emptying your mind or stopping it from having thoughts. People often say to me: “I couldn’t do that (exercise)” and yet when I query this, they explain that they couldn’t stay focussed on the object and that their mind wandered. So I ask, did you notice it wandered? Were you able to bring your attention back? If the answer is yes, then that is you being mindful! Mindfulness is paying attention to where your mind is and choosing where you want it to be. It is about increasing awareness, not stopping it from thinking or emptying it. 

So we have discussed what it is and why it can be helpful. Confused? Do not fear, that is a common reaction for beginners of mindfulness. The best way to learn about it is to practice and we will talk you through how in the next blog!

References

Baer, R. A., Smith, G. T., Hopkins, J., Kreitemeyer, J. & Toney, L. (2006). Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness. Assessment, 13. Pp. 27-45.
Davidson, R. J. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64 (4), pp.76-89.
Kabat-Zinn, J., Massion, A. O., Kristeller, J., Peterson, L, G., Fletcher, K. E., Pbert, L., et al. (1992). Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 149, pp.936-943.
Kinderman, P., Schwannauer, M., Pontin, E., & Tai, S. (2013). Psychological Processes Mediate the Impact of Familial Risk, Social Circumstances and Life Events on Mental Health. PLOS One. Accessed: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0076564.
Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Manual. 2nd Ed. The Guildford Press, New York.
Jain, S., Shaprio, S. L., Swanick, S., Roesch, S. C., Mills, P. J., Bell, I., et al. (2007). A randomised controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: Effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 33(1), pp.11-21.
Tang, Y. Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Lu, Q., et al. (2007) Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(43), pp. 17152-6.
Way., B. M., Creswell, J. D., Eisenberger, N. I. & Lieberman, M. D. (2010). Dispositional Mindfulness and Depressive Symptomatology: Correlations with Limbic and Self-Referential Neural Activity During Rest. Emotion, 10, pp.12-24.
Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(1), pp.5-13.
Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way Through Depression. Freeing Yourself from Chornic Unhappiness. The Guildford Press, New York.