Mindfulness is a word that has been widely used and misused in the last few years – often in the media to describe some new technique that guarantees immediate relief from life’s stresses and strains.
The dictionary defines the word as, ‘a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.’
This sounds very New Age but is in fact mainly a refinement of meditation practice.
Although Mindfulness may have had its origins in the east, the benefits of mindfulness and meditation are now relatively mainstream and the scientific community has found data clearly linking mindfulness and meditation to stress reduction.
In the last 30 years, the most widely recognised Mindfulness practices, MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) & MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) have been developed and researched in the West. Recent neuroscience & clinical research has helped explain why mindfulness meditation practices work, which has accelerated its use within conventional medical practice.
Chronic stress releases cortisol that has the effect of increasing the size of our amygdala – the part of our brain that pairs highly emotional events with feelings. The changes which cortisol creates actually increase negative emotions including fear, anxiety and aggression. Cortisol and chronic stress also shrink the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for learning, memory and emotional regulation) and shrinks the pre-frontal cortex (responsible for decision making, working memory and impulse control). This doesn’t just affect the laying down of memories but also the recalling of them. The good news is that regular mindfulness practice, and other forms of meditation, have been shown to increase the thickness of the hippocampus and shrink the amygdala, resulting in improved working memory and better emotional regulation, thus reversing the effects of stress.
Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment. “It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour,” he says.
There are now many books, audio CD’s, and web based apps which offer Mindfulness training. While they are often suggested by health professionals to patients suffering from depression and anxiety, there is increasing evidence that this training can be beneficial to anybody looking to improve their general wellbeing.
Three-minute breathing space – A good introduction to the practice of mindfulness
Headspace – A widely used subscription app which can be tailored made for individual preferences.
Oxford Mindfulness Centre – Much of the UK research on the benefits of mindfulness was undertaken here.
NHS Choices – This has a section on mindfulness and links to other support services
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams
This article has been written by Dr John Humphreys MRCGP, one of our Preventicum Doctors.