Mindfulness: a tool for creating calm

Mindfulness is an evidence-based tool to help you tackle life's problems and calm your mind.

Mindfulness a tool for gaining greater control

Mindfulness is a big buzz word at the moment. It’s on all the social media channels, the celebrities are doing it, the podcasters are recording long chats about it, and even some scientists are raving about it. But what’s really so great about it? Isn’t it just breathing? How can just breathing in and out really help you deal with stress and anxiety – after all, you’ve been doing it your whole life and haven’t seen the magic so far!

What is mindfulness and where did it come from?

Mindfulness is not just a new social media buzz word, it’s a type of meditation that originated in Buddhism, and is all about being really conscious and aware of yourself and what you’re doing right now. And while most of us may think we’re generally quite aware, stop and ask yourself – how many things are competing for your attention as you read this?

Mindfulness is a tool to train your brain to really pay attention. It can help you maintain a healthy mind, in the same way that exercise can keep you physically fit. You don’t need to subscribe to Buddhist philosophy or religion of any sort in order to practice it, and while it certainly isn’t the end of everyone’s problems, being more aware and present can be surprisingly refreshing!

In the last 20 years, there has been an increasing body of research into the effectiveness of mindfulness as a means of helping to treat a variety of problems, from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and stress. There’s evidence to suggest establishing an ongoing mindfulness practice can help you concentrate better, be more creative and even lower your blood pressure. And there is even potential to use mindfulness techniques as one of a range of tools to help deal with addictions to drugs, such as cannabis, by riding out cravings instead of acting on them.

OK, so how do you start a mindfulness practice?

Basically, mindfulness meditation is being aware of the present moment. You can achieve this in a variety of ways, but one of the most common methods is simply observing your breath – 

conscientiously paying attention to your breath as it enters your body through your nose, fills your lungs with air, and then exits out of your body. Then when a thought arises (which it will, a billion times or more – all kinds of thoughts from serious worries through to what you’re going to have for dinner tonight), you just acknowledge your thought and then gently bring your awareness back to your breath. Some people also find it helpful to give a name to the thought, like “worry” or “planning” and then return their focus to their breath. In the same way, when craving, you might acknowledge what the craving is, then focus on coming back to what you were doing before it started.

While this sounds simple (and maybe a bit wishy-washy or weird), it can be more challenging than you think. You may also be thinking to yourself, how can simply paying attention to your breath help with stress and anxiety? What’s the point? The point is really about becoming aware of the constant background chatter and narrative in our heads that we all live with all the time. Often this voice in our head can make us quite negative or judgmental of ourselves, and mindfulness is a tool which helps us recognise this chatter and acknowledge it for what it really is – just thoughts. Thoughts come and go and they do not define who we are as a person. By consciously practicing mindfulness until it becomes natural, you may be able to recognise your (unhelpful) thoughts more easily and not let yourself get caught up in them.

There’s so much going on in life – is there really time to stop and breathe?

While in the ideal world we’d all rise at 5am and spend an hour meditating, cross-legged on our little meditation pillow, the reality is this just won’t work for a lot of people. A good way to approach this is to start small. Just do five minutes a day. By doing just five minutes you’re working on creating a mindfulness habit first, one that doesn’t seem too overwhelming. Then, over time, as you notice the benefits of mindfulness, you may decide you’re able to find more time in your day to extend your practice to 10, 20 or 30 minutes.

But if you feel like you don’t even have five minutes in your day to spare, or your days are often very unpredictable, so establishing a new daily routine can be difficult, Oxford University mindfulness expert, Professor Mark Williams, suggests trying to create a mindful approach to everyday activities like brushing your teeth. To do this, you use this time to try and pay real attention to what you’re doing (such as brushing your teeth), rather than losing yourself in your mind’s chatter. Or perhaps every time you walk through a doorway use that as a cue to take a breath and centre yourself.   

If you find yourself in a difficult situation, like struggling with an addiction, a tricky habit or anxiety, think about combining these practices with professional help. Or, if you just want to do something positive for your general wellbeing, give mindfulness a go.