Mindfulness is a word you hear a lot these days, but few can explain what it actually means.
In its most simplest form, it means paying attention to the present moment without judging external thoughts that enter into your mind.
The term has surged in use in recent years, having been co-opted by various brands in a bid to appeal to wellbeing-conscious millennials, though the definition can vary depending on what is being marketed.
It’s often used as an umbrella term, spawning all sorts of variations, from mindful eating to mindful skiing – yes, really.
While psychologists have praised the benefits of mindfulness in terms of mental health – research has claimed it can curb symptoms of depression and anxiety- recent studies have disputed this, with some saying it “only works for women“ and others claiming that mindfulness makes you selfish.
What is it?
Mindfulness is about taking a pause from the business of your daily life to think of nothing else but the present moment.
According to Sharon Hadley, CEO of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, it’s primarily about encouraging people to pay more attention to what is happening in their own bodies and minds.
“It is a term used for a range of interventions or practices taught to help us cultivate this ability,” she tells The Independent.
How does it work?
When a person is engaging in the practice of mindfulness, the idea is that they focus on nothing but their bodies and their breathing, mental health charity Mind explains on its website.
By doing this, they should be able to pick up on any thoughts that enter their minds and let them go, Mind adds.
You can find some useful tips on how to actually do this without allowing yourself to be distracted on Mindful.org.
It should feel liberating and help someone understand themselves and their emotions better, the NHS explains.
How is it beneficial?
Hadley says that mindfulness can have a positive impact on our overall wellbeing by making us more aware of our own thoughts and feelings in addition to the environment around us.
“This ability to pay attention, to notice what is happening in the present moment and increase our ability to make a choice how or indeed if to respond to our thoughts or feelings has proven beneficial to those suffering, both mentally and physically,” she adds.
Applying mindfulness strategies to various parts of our lives has been linked to a whole host of benefits, from improving your relationship with food and alleviating smartphone addiction to boosting body confidence and ameliorating your sex life.
Can it help treat mental health problems?
Research has also found mindfulness to be beneficial in treating a number of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and stress.
“Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is one mindfulness intervention and has been used in a clinical context for a number of years,” Hadley adds.
“MBCT is recognised and approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK as a clinical intervention to support those who suffer from recurrent depression.”
NICE, which provides national guidance to improve health and social care, also recommends using mindfulness-based techniques to help curb social anxiety, which is the term used to describe an overwhelming fear of social situations.
One recent study claimed that mindfulness can be “just as effective” as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in easing chronic pain and symptoms of depression.
Mind adds that research is currently underway into whether mindfulness could be used to treat more complex conditions, such as bipolar disorder and psychosis. Though it’s not yet clear how mindfulness will be used in these contexts as the research is in the early stages.
How can you be more mindful?
While anyone can try mindfulness, being mindful isn’t always easy to do, says Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind.
“It can take practice, and might not be right for everyone. It’s not usually a good idea to start learning mindfulness when you’re very unwell because it can be hard to get the most out of it, and you may find it distressing at first,” he tells The Independent.
“If you’re currently having a particularly difficult time with your mental health, you might want to seek treatment and support for that, then try mindfulness when you’re feeling better.”
That being said, there are some simple ways one can incorporate mindfulness into their daily lives.
For example, the NHS suggests trying new things on a regular basis, whether it’s going somewhere new for lunch or sitting somewhere different in a meeting. This could help you “notice the word in a new way”, its website states.
Alternatively, silently naming thoughts and feelings can be a helpful way of addressing stressful situations, the NHS adds. They suggests, for example, if you’re feeling anxious about an exam, this would be a case of saying to yourself: “This is anxiety”.
If you really want to learn the ins and outs of mindfulness, Hadley suggests signing up to a basic introductory course. The majority of these run for eight weeks and offer two and half hours of tuition each week, she says.