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Opinion: Practising mindfulness is a valuable tool for easing stress and anxious thoughts

Mindfulness meditation is about accepting our current experience, whatever that may be, in a relaxed, alert, and open way.

Gerry Fahey

MINDFULNESS AND mindfulness meditation have become very fashionable in recent years in the popular media and elsewhere. TIME magazine featured it on its front cover in February 2013. The New York Times regularly features articles on the benefits of it. Large American companies such as Nike, General Mills, Target and Aetna encourage their employees to sit and meditate, and provide classes that show them how to. Google also runs in-house courses on mindfulness and encourages its employees to practise mindfulness.

A very recent article in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) publication Monitor even goes so far as to claim that research shows that the practise of mindfulness could improve judicial decision making. Mindfulness meditation has been empirically shown to thicken the brain’s cortex, lower blood pressure, and can help psoriasis. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, which has a very large mindfulness component, has been shown to be helpful for individuals who have been classified as having Borderline Personality Disorder.

So what is mindfulness and how can people practise mindfulness? Mindfulness is best defined as moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. In this sense, mindfulness is a state and not a trait so it is not a characteristic that people inherently possess. It can be acquired with practise, unlike a trait which is largely genetically inherited. That’s the good news about mindfulness. Even better good news is that research has shown that regular mindfulness practice has many benefits. According to the APA these include:

Reduced rumination – less replaying of intrusive thoughts

Stress reduction – increases positive mood and decreases anxiety and negative mood

Boosts to working memory – increases the ability to hold information in conscious awareness

Focus – individual become better at suppressing distracting information

Less emotional reactivity – helps people disengage from emotionally upsetting feelings

More cognitive flexibility – develops the skill of self-observation and option choice

Relationship satisfaction – better at responding well to relationship stress and increased skill in communicating one’s emotions to a partner

Mindfulness is a naturally occurring event of everyday life but requires regular practise in order for a state of mindfulness to be maintained in the midst of the distractions of daily life. We are all usually only intermittently mindful; distracting thoughts and emotions impede on mental processes and cause us to lose focus and attention. For instance, people frequently, when watching a film or TV programme, lose track of what is happening on the screen because of distracted thinking and intrusive emotions. Mindfulness practice counteracts this normal human tendency and helps us to better focus our attention and stay mindful of what we want to attend to.

It’s not a ‘relaxation’ exercise

Mindfulness meditation is not a relaxation exercise. Beginning meditators often misunderstand what mindfulness meditation is about. It is about settling into our current experience – whatever that may be – in a relaxed, alert, and open way. It helps us to engage with our difficulties and disentangle from them.

So how does one practise mindfulness? It is a skill that is easily acquired and mindfulness is to mental and emotional well-being as physical exercise is to good health. Physical exercise can be practised in many ways and at ever increasing levels of intensity. So too with the practice of mindfulness. The best way is to explore mindfulness initially is by yourself before attending a mindfulness course, of which there are many available, or get formal individual training in mindfulness techniques. Most people start the practice of mindfulness with ‘guided’ mindfulness meditations.

In typical practice, mindfulness meditation begins with concentration on the breath. When individuals focus on the breath they are focusing on a perceptual event in the present. This is the essence of formal mindfulness practice, guided or not. The mind will constantly wander away from focused attention on the breath and the ‘task’ in mindfulness meditation is to bring attention back to the breath, no matter what distractions occur.

Guided exercises

There are a number of excellent websites devoted to mindfulness practice and the one that I would recommend is that which is maintained by UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre (MARC). This website has a number of downloadable guided meditations where the listener is guided through the practice of meditation. It also has regular podcasts available dealing with different aspects of mindfulness which are also very informative and helpful. There is also a very good YouTube video available of Jon Kabat Zinn giving a talk on mindfulness and conducting a guided meditation exercise with Google employees. Kabat Zinn is regarded by many as the ‘father’ of the mindfulness movement in the US and has developed an empirically validated Mindfulness Stress Reduction Programme, which is widely used in psychotherapy.

If you are interested in what mindfulness has to offer then try the guided meditations on the UCLA MARC website and if this stimulates your interest in mindfulness then you can explore it further by attending a mindfulness course or avail of one on one training with a competent professional.

Gerry Fahey is an occupational psychologist and a graduate of TCD and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

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Gerry Fahey

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