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Mindfulness: Pseudo or Science?

The term 'mindfulness' has become kind of a buzz word in popular culture recently. Many people may have heard of mindfulness, but what is it really & how does it relate to mental health?


My favourite definition of mindfulness is that mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment, moment by moment, with awareness & without judgement (Jon Kabat-Zinn). In other words, mindfulness is paying attention to whatever is in the present moment, & how this may change moment by moment. Mindfulness most literally means 'awareness'. A non-judgmental approach is key, along with some other attitudes that can help us to just observe, rather then react, to what is happening in the now.


Why be mindful?

Why would anybody want to be mindful? What would be the benefit from being present & aware in each moment without judgement?


It would feel great to be present & aware if, in the present moment, we were having a good time. To be mindful of pleasurable experiences means we don't miss the good stuff! When we are mindless to pleasurable experiences, we can be missing opportunities to feel joy & contentment- obviously important factors to good mental health.


But what about unpleasant experiences? What would be the benefit from being present & aware of those- surely we should try to avoid those feelings?


The short answer is no. Firstly, when we successfully avoid sitting with unpleasant emotions, at best all we are really doing is postponing them. In other words, experiencing unpleasant emotions is a part of being human & we can't avoid it. In fact, unpleasant emotions all serve vital purposes in our social & physical well-being. We wouldn't want to get rid of them, even if we could.


If we get really good at avoiding unpleasant emotions when they occur, some negative things start to happen. Common avoidance behaviors can include self harm, drug & alcohol abuse, workaholic tendencies, & isolation from others. Common avoidance strategies have their own consequences. For example, drug & alcohol abuse is an effective short-term avoidance strategy for unpleasant emotions. Of course, there are negative consequences to this avoidance behavior, such as increased risk of harm or death, addiction, dependance & disease.


More then just these consequences however, is the pattern that starts to emerge if we use avoidance strategies on a regular basis. What happens is that our tolerance to distress actually starts to go down. In other words, it will take less distress to trigger urges to engage in avoidance behaviors in the future. This is a problem, because distress is a part of life. We can't get away from it permanently, so if our tolerance to distress goes down, life actually gets more painful.


The 'pain paradox' is a concept often referred to in psychology. It refers to the relationship between avoidance & emotional pain. The more we try to get away from pain, the worse it tends to get. The more we can intentionally turn TOWARDS painful emotions, the more they tend to shift & ease.


Mindfulness gives us the tools to turn towards & sit with painful experiences. Mindfulness is the opposite of avoidance. It means intentionally turning towards what is in the now- even if that is unpleasant & distressing.


Mindfulness means turning our attention towards the present moment in a unique kind of way- as an OBSERVER. Observing rather then reacting. Reacting is what we usually do in our daily lives. We have a thought, emotion or physical sensation & we automatically come up with creating meanings & interpretations for that experience- without even knowing we are doing that a lot of the time!


Mindfulness means observing our thoughts, emotions & physical sensations, & rather then reacting as we usually would, we instead just notice how other thoughts, emotions & physical sensations are triggered- one after another.


Is Mindfulness for Me?

Only we as individuals can decide if mindfulness practice has benefits enough for us to create, on a regular basis, time for being rather then always doing. The style of practice we gravitate towards tends to be based on personal preferences, & it's worth experimenting with many different kinds of mindfulness exercises to find what suits you.


Mindfulness offers a low cost, long-term effective strategy for stress reduction & improved mental health. Most people find it has no negative side effects & can be accessed any time, by anyone.


Research shows regular mindfulness practice can be as effective, or perhaps even more effective, than medication for some mental health conditions (however some people may still require medication for good symptom management). People who practice mindfulness regularly show a decrease in activation in the fight/ flight sensor in the brain (the amygdala), as well as more activity & growth in the frontal cortex (the rational/ advanced thinking part of the brain). These are all powerful effects that could benefit us, whether we are struggling with a mental health condition or not. 


Mindfulness is truly a life long practice- one that we never really 'master' because our mind & body is always changing. But it can be like a familiar friend- one we know will always be there in times of need, without necessarily offering immediate answers to our problems, but a comforting & safe space to just be.


For more Information about how to practice mindfulness, & further mindfulness resources, check out my blog 'Mindfulness: How to Practice'.


Alex.


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