We are reaching an interesting time in mental health. After many years of it being something hidden from public conversation – for example questions like ‘how are you?‘...
I’ve been doing mindfulness in one form or another, for about 8 years now. Informally you can think of it as noticing your thoughts and feelings, non-judgmentally, and then choosing what to focus on next. It’s a simple thing but it has had a huge, positive impact on my life. I am constantly surprised by the new ways I find to apply it. And even if one looks only at the benefits that have been proven by science you find that mindfulness helps people with an impressive number of issues. Stress, depression, fatigue, performance, emotional intelligence, chronic pain, long-term illness, and so many other things that I can’t list them all.
Unfortunately, this very success sometimes holds people back from trying mindfulness, because it seems unbelievable. They wonder how one thing can possibly have all these benefits. There is a lot of bunk, pseudoscience, and outright nonsense in the world of wellness (and the world in general). So this scepticism is not only reasonable; it’s completely justified.
To understand how mindfulness’ effects can be seen so broadly one first needs to realise that there are two parts to every problem. There is the problem, then there is how you respond to the problem. And those two things, while related, are not the same.
Most people have had the experience of being unable to fall asleep because they are worried about some or other ‘crisis’.
In this situation there are two problems:
It’s unlikely that you can do much about problem 1 while you’re lying in bed. But there’s actually a lot you can do about problem 2, if you’re mindful about it. Realise that you’ve done all you can about problem 1, and that it’s pointless to keep worrying. This is the first step to breaking out of those repetitive, unhealthy thoughts, and starting to get a good night’s sleep.
I like to explain this principle using a little story. Let’s say that you have to walk past a scary dog before going to bed tonight and you know it’ll be an unpleasant experience. In such a situation, many of us will spend all day worrying about the scary dog. Facing the dog only takes a few seconds, and thinking about it doesn’t help. But we still choose to spend hours facing the dog in our minds.
But we could choose to think differently.
In a way this is how mindfulness helps people with chronic illness. See, when you have a chronic illness you have two problems:
According to the peer-reviewed scientific literature having a chronic illness sucks. Which is why people with chronic illnesses often experience depression, sadness, and hopelessness. They often feel trapped by their illness. And they can come to believe that the illness is removing all joy from their lives, even when that is not the case.
Mindfulness might not be able to cure the illness but it can help people to break out of that mental trap. And it’s that trap that prevents them from enjoying the good things they still have.
And the key thing to remember is that every problem has these same two aspects. There is the problem, and then there are the thoughts and feelings about the problem. Being aware of these thoughts and feelings, non-judgmentally, and then choosing what to focus on next can help us with almost any type of problem.
Because our response to a problem will almost always be affected by how we think about it. So mindfulness can help us with almost any problem.