Dr Hazel Harrison has been collaborating with Unmind since just after we launched. We thought we'd catch up with Hazel to find out a little bit about her and her most recent Unmind Series, "Getting Gritty"...
Narrowing the gap between our attention and what’s really going on in the present moment can be challenging. Many of us experience a relatively constant treadmill of thoughts and sometimes these thoughts can be so prominent and distracting that our outside, objective reality is kept at a distance.
It’s normal for our minds to wander into the past or future – as human beings we are innately set-up to evaluate, problem-solve and plan – but certain types of rumination can be overwhelming and potentially have a negative impact on our mental wellbeing.
Mindfulness is one of many techniques we can use to support our mental health. It teaches us how to concentrate more fully in the present moment and can help us break out of unhelpful thought patterns and redirect our attention in a more purposeful way.
“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.” – from the Western Godfather of Mindfulness himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn.
There are various forms of Mindfulness and as a starter for ten, I’d like to explore where it comes from, what some of the practices entail and how we can apply Mindfulness to our daily lives.
Mindfulness is something that has been practiced for hundreds of years within various religions, including Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism. Over time it has been adapted into secularised, psychological practices (2). The practice of Mindfulness, in this sense, teaches us how we can rewire our thinking to help calm and focus ourselves in a frenetic world (turning the volume down on redundant ways of thinking and outdated behavioural mechanisms that might have served us well 1000s of years ago, but not so much now).
There has been a huge buzz around Mindfulness over the past few years or so – with lots of media coverage, literature and research reports published. The overwhelming majority of evidence supports Mindfulness as a beneficial tool to lift and maintain good mental health. This type of evidence has led the UK parliament to publish their paperadvocating widespread use of mindfulness in multiple sectors of UK society – from public and private sectors, government, education and the prison service. It is also advocated within NICE guidelines as an appropriate tool to use in support of a number of mental health treatments (for example, in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
Bringing awareness to our thought processes can help us notice and start to understand any negative cycles that might have developed. With this awareness we can learn how to refocus our energies – providing enough space for us to respond to the world in a more self-possessed way (instead of defaulting to old habits) (1).
There are different types and ways of practicing Mindfulness. One such practice is closed-focus Mindfulness; helping to train concentration and quieten the mind by routinely focussing attention back to our current experience – bodily sensations, for example. Another form of practice is bringing more open awareness to what’s going on outside of the self; helping us tune in more with our surroundings and override auto-pilot mode – where life can seemingly pass by in a blur of day-to-day activities.
Unmind recently launched a Discovering Mindfulness Series for users – helping to lay a foundation for an ongoing practice to train awareness and attention. It uses research-backed methods to empower users to reflect on how they choose to respond to common challenges – helping to improve stress-reduction, for example.
Like with many things, the Mindfulness hype is also accompanied by some scrutiny. It’s true that there are certain instances where Mindfulness should be used with caution and it is also something that can profoundly and positively affect some people’s lives, whilst not having any benefits for others. However, some of the rhetoric associated with Mindfulness has led to a lot of common misconceptions that I’ll briefly touch on here.
Being mindful does not mean labouring every process that is best served by routine behaviours. We absolutely need to rely on automatic, habitual behaviours to fulfil tasks that need to be done quickly, accurately and without conscious thought (allowing us to conserve mental energy and multi-task, for instance). To take a very ordinary example, knowing how to brush our teeth is a learned habit, which means we avoid wasting any cognitive time in the process.
Being mindful does not equate to zoning out either. Mindfully brushing your teeth is done with intention and effort, and in the attempt to be fully aware of the present moment. Spacing out doesn’t mean ceasing to be able to brush our teeth and accidentally stabbing ourselves in the eye with the toothbrush (because we’re not aware of what we’re doing) but it does mean that we’re acting mindlessly – by just going through the motions (which is fine, it’s just not being mindful).
Being mindful in this example, means brushing your teeth whilst focussing solely on the task at hand, as opposed to brushing your teeth whilst your mind is unintentionally imagining all the things that could go wrong in an upcoming meeting, causing you to feel stressed.
When certain thoughts patterns (and their ensuing behaviours) don’t serve us positively, we can learn to be more mindful and train ourselves to act with more purpose and clarity and this is what Mindfulness, in it’s essence, helps us to do.
Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal practice. For example, for the past year or so, I’ve been actively trying to catch my wandering mind out during my commute. Sometimes I could live an entire lifetime in my mind before even getting to work or back through the front door at home – which can be exhausting. Our minds are amazing things but they can be a real nuisance sometimes too. It’s about learning how to harness your mind and feel the healthiest you can.
I’ve made a conscious effort to try and open up my awareness when I feel as though I am headed down a rabbit warren (<< or hopping from one mental vine to the next) with my thoughts. I’ll focus on my surroundings (someone once told me to look up more – it really does give you a whole new perspective) and when I feel myself drifting off into a fantasy world, I’ll balance it by gently nudging myself back to the current moment. It feels nice to accept things as they currently are and distill the temptation to rehearse certain thoughts and get caught in any unhelpful loops.
Ultimately, there are various ways to apply Mindfulness to our daily lives and it’s about finding what works for you and building that into your routine – because we all deserve to have healthy minds.
*The feature image for this article is from a very cool campaign run by the Newcastle University Student’s Union: https://www.nusu.co.uk/getinvolved/societies/society/8084/ (did you know that it was University Mental Health Awareness Day on the 1st March? Read more here: https://www.unimentalhealthday.co.uk/)