Mindfulness is paying deliberate attention to things as they are without judgement. We spend much of the day on automatic pilot, going through the motions while our minds are anticipating the future or ruminating about the past. Being absorbed in the constant stream of ‘noise’ in our head does not allow us to participate and appreciate fully what is happening in the moment. By learning how to train our attention to rest more naturally in the present moment, we begin to feel more appreciative, satisfied, healthier and happier. Mindfulness is simply a daily mental exercise of shifting attention to what is steadying in order to keep your brain healthy.
Mindfulness has proven benefits for health and wellbeing. Although many people find the use of mindfulness apps or simply ‘being in the moment’ helpful, the research around mindfulness in based mainly on people completing an 8-Week Mindfulness Course. The original 8-Week Mindfulness Course (MBSR), was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre to teach meditation techniques and mindful living to people experiencing physical symptoms made worse by stress, anxiety and depression. Conditions involving chronic pain, fatigue, low mood, headaches, digestive problems and inflammation (including various skin, gut and joint problems) and symptoms for which a medical cause cannot be found (medically unexplained symptoms) are frequently made worse by stress. Learning techniques to reduce stress can have a profound impact on the severity of physical symptoms.
Mindfulness can also be helpful for physical symptoms that are not stress-related. Often these symptoms developed at a stressful period in life but persist once the stressful event has passed. This is often because the mind has ‘learned’ this pattern of sensation in the body because these symptoms demanded so much attention. The brain is shaped by what it pays attention to. By training the attention away from problematic symptoms, the brain rewires to a more normal representation of that part of the body which often results in the easing of the symptoms. Mindfulness in the presence of physical symptoms should be taught in conjunction with formal healthcare support to ensure any medical needs and investigations are also attended to.
Stress, of course, also affects our mental health. Professor Mark Williams at the University of Oxford Mindfulness Centre, has since developed a slightly different 8-Week Mindfulness Course (MBCT) to teach mindfulness to people experiencing anxiety, depression and burnout. This chronic stress, once ingrained, cannot simply be shut off by telling ourselves to relax nor is it practical to ‘give it all up’. By taking time each day to train the mind away from the chronic stress-inducing thought patterns, to a neutral and settling focal point in the present moment, the brain begins rewire itself to a more restful state, allowing you to feel happier, healthier and more satisfied with your life. This rewiring of the brain has been shown on functional MRI scans to occur after only 4 weeks of practising mindfulness 10-20 minutes a day.
People who complete an 8-Week Mindfulness course experience*:
- Lower stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms when compared to a control group
- Improved working memory
- Improved ability to focus
- Greater satisfaction with their relationships
- Improved fear modulation
- Greater immune function
- Reduced psychological distress
- Lower blood pressure
- Better cognitive scores (particularly in older people and people with Alzheimers Disease)
- Reduced cell ageing
- Improved ability to cope with the pain, anxiety and depression that can accompany a chronic condition
- Improved ability to overcome addiction due to reduced psychological distress
- Improved sleep
* American Psychological Association and Greater Good Science Centre, University of California
An age appropriate version of the 8-Week Mindfulness Course is also being taught in schools to young people ages 7-18 (Mindfulness in Schools Project). Teenagers who have been taught mindfulness through a 6 week programme demonstrated greater wellbeing at a 3 month follow-up and they continued to use mindfulness techniques to manage difficulty. A much larger study through the University of Oxford is now investigating if teenagers taught a mindfulness programme are less likely to develop mental health problems than teens who were not taught mindfulness. The results of this study are due to be reported in 2021 (MYRIAD Project).
Information on upcoming 8-Week Mindfulness Courses.