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In Part 2 of our well-being and mental health series, Dr Rosie introduces us to mindfulness. What it is, what it isn't, and how you can achieve it.

“Have you heard of mindfulness?”

Five years ago when I asked my therapy clients this question I usually got a blank face staring back at me. These days most people proudly show me an app on their phone (usually unused) that “does” mindfulness. The world has woken up to the power of mindfulness over the past few years.

Unfortunately, some myths about mindfulness have become popular too so I want to start with letting you know what mindfulness will NOT do for you.

Mindfulness will NOT;

  1. Make you relaxed or calm
  2. Make you more productive
  3. Get rid of anxiety or depression

Mindfulness WILL;

  1. Give you a choice about how you react to your thoughts, feelings and difficult situations

Mindfulness is noticing not reacting

There are many definitions of mindfulness. It comes from a Buddhist spiritual tradition and has been adopted globally with many different aims and in many different forms. When I am talking about mindfulness I am talking about learning to notice what is going on in our minds and our bodies so that we can stop reacting to thoughts and feelings and take control of our behaviour.

In order to be mindful you only have to do three things

  1. Pick something to focus on (your anchor)
  2. Notice it in detail (I usually choose just one or two features to pay attention to)
  3. Notice when the mind wanders off and return your focus to your anchor without judging yourself or your mind.

Why should I learn to be mindful?

In my last blog we looked at how the threat system can make it hard for us to deal with difficult situations because our primitive fight/flight/freeze response can be seriously unhelpful when we are trying to solve modern day problems.

Our thoughts play an important role in this threat system. Thoughts can tell our bodies to activate the threat system because the threat system doesn’t know the difference between things we imagine and things we can really see/hear/taste/touch/smell. They can also convince us that we have “no choice” over our actions in certain situations. Sometimes this can cause BIG problems.

For example, Anne is a military spouse who has been out of work for the past ten years due to the pressures of raising a young family and moving frequently. She has decided that she would like to apply for a job in marketing as she enjoyed her career in this industry and was good at it.

However, she has lost a lot of confidence recently so when she sits down to write her CV and gets to the “employment history” section she starts to think “I have nothing to offer.” Her primitive mind treats this thought like it is an attack from another person so it releases stress hormones to help Anne fight the mean bully. These increase her heart rate and make her breathing shallow and rapid. This takes Anne by surprise and she understandably thinks “I can’t breathe properly.”

The body is then alarmed by this thought and reacts by giving her lots more fight or flight hormones, further increasing her breathing rate. Her mind then interprets this as meaning that she needs MORE oxygen and she breathes even more rapidly. Before she knows it she has breathed IN so much that her lungs are actually full and she can’t fit any more air into them BUT because her head is now screaming “we don’t have enough air, get more air” she believes she is suffocating.

This is an example of how our minds can give us a panic attack if we don’t watch what they are doing carefully.

When we are “being mindful” we notice our thoughts and DECIDE how we want to react to them. In this scenario if Anne had noticed the thought “I have nothing to offer” or “I can’t breathe” rather than simply reacting to them she could have decided to try some soothing breathing (the exercise we did together in my last post). As this type of breathing has a focus on the out breath there is a good chance that choosing this activity could have prevented her panic attack from taking hold. She would still have found CV writing unpleasant but it wouldn’t have gone beyond that. This is one way that we can all use mindfulness on a daily basis.

Sounds easy! How do I learn to be mindful?

Mindfulness IS easy but it requires practice. If you are like me then you have spent your whole life reacting to your thoughts as though they were real and 100% accurate. Mindfulness means taking a completely new perspective and recognising that sometimes we think things that are not “true” and/or do not help us.

The only way to learn this is through practice. To help you start developing your mindfulness skills here are two exercises to practice daily.

Formal Meditation Practice

When you are alone/have 10 minutes to yourself

It is all about noticing what is going on in your body and learning to focus your attention on particular body parts. This is a really helpful skill as you can use focusing on a particular body part or sensation as an “anchor” when you ae feeling anxious.

If you practice this daily for a week you will notice that it becomes more easy to access mindfulness when you need it to help you deal with something difficult.

Mindfulness in CV Writing

Take a moment to breathe

There a few things more intimidating than sitting down to write a CV when you have been out of the job market for a while. Maybe you find yourself constantly doubting your value, you find it impossible to focus or you get heart palpitations as soon as you open up Microsoft Word.

Mindfulness can help you to get that CV written ANYWAY by allowing you to focus your attention on the task at hand rather than on your anxiety.

REMEMBER there is no way of getting mindfulness wrong. The days when it is a struggle and your mind is so busy it could explode and you spend the whole time gently returning your focus are the days when you will get the most benefit. Trust me and the science.

Gradually you will find you become more and more present in THIS moment that is happening right now. And in this moment all you have to do is some typing and some thinking to get that CV done.

Give both of these a go and we will build on them throughout this series. As ever I would love your feedback, there are a TON of ways to do mindfulness so get in touch and let me know which of these worked better for you or if you would like a completely different type of mindfulness!

For more information about Dr Rosie, visit drrosie.co.uk.

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