In today’s busy world, your attention is often divided by a range of things – from your work to your phone, it’s almost too easy to be left feeling restless and distracted. This is where the idea of mindfulness steps in.
Research indicates that mindfulness can help you move towards a healthier headspace, making you calmer overall and more productive at work. The practice of mindfulness is about making us more aware of what’s happening around us and gaining a stronger sense of presence. But what exactly is mindfulness and is it really that effective? Nifty is here to investigate!
What is Mindfulness?
In a nutshell, mindfulness is a mental and physical technique for focusing your awareness on your present situation. This may involve directing your attention to your surroundings, emotions and breathing — or it may just be the process of enjoying every bite of a great meal.
Whatever the method, the idea is that by being in the moment you can acknowledge and cope with intrusive thoughts, feelings and sensations better. And in recent decades, research has linked the practice of mindfulness to a whole host of different health benefits.
Founded in Buddhist thought and theory, mindfulness was popularised in the West during the 1970s by University of Massachusetts professor Jon Kabat-Zinn. A cognitive scientist, Kabat-Zinn developed an alternative therapy called “mindfulness-based stress reduction” for a variety of conditions that were often difficult to treat. Come the turn of the 21st century, the concept of mindfulness has grown in popularity. Now, it has many meanings and there are varying approaches to its methodology as a form of treatment.
Mindfulness vs. Meditation
Given their similarities, the terms ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’ are often indiscriminately interchanged, leading to some confusion around what’s what. The key difference between the two is their purpose. Meditation denotes a large range of practices intended to help a person reach ultimate consciousness and concentration. Conversely, mindfulness is about focusing on the moment. Therefore, mindfulness is more like a form of meditation, as opposed to an alternative technique.
As complementary practices, they effectively work as two sides of the same coin. Mindfulness meditation asks you to use meditation as a means to be more mindful of your surrounds.
The supposed benefits of mindfulness have been talked about for centuries, but recent findings from neuroscientists have indicated that mindfulness can help to:
- Reduce rumination (an issue common with anxiety and depression);
- Minimise stress;
- Boost working memory;
- Improve focus;
- Lessen emotional reactivity;
- Increase cognitive flexibility; and
- Assist relationship satisfaction.
All in all, findings suggest mindfulness meditation can achieve such benefits because it enables people to use emotion regulation strategies and experience emotion selectively. However, science has still yet to provide conclusive evidence and mindfulness is still a contentious practice among psychologists.
How to Get Started
If you’re interested in finding out whether mindfulness could have the aforementioned benefits for you, it’s fairly easy to try out. There are countless apps available now that will help guide you through sessions, for newbies we recommend trying Smiling Mind or Headspace for free.
Alternatively, you can also try having mindful moments during everyday activities where your thoughts tend to wander off. This could be when you’re brushing your teeth, eating lunch, taking a walk or even catching the train — any part of your day where you find you usually ruminate on problems or concerns for the future.
Here are four simple tips to help you practice mindfulness in everyday moments:
1. Observe Your Breathing
Start by taking a couple of minutes in your day to focus on your breathing. Take some deep breaths, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. You should expel as much air from your lungs as possible before taking each new breath.
As you breathe try not to let your mind wander, instead focus on your actions and the process. Mindfulness takes time to develop, so you will need to practice to see any positive effects. Learn more about how to mediate here.
2. Go For a Walk
When you go for a walk it’s easy to get distracted by your thoughts. But did you know that walking meditation can actually be great for guiding us out of our everyday ‘autopilot’?
Simply find a quiet place in nature or a small slice of suburbia and pay attention to the lifting and falling of your feet. Clear your mind and focus only on the movement in your legs and body. Like the previous step, it may take some time to get the hang of but once you’ve practiced a few times you should start to see the benefits of mindfulness.
3. Take Short Breaks
If you’re feeling restless at your desk, struggling to concentrate or sit still then take a little break. Mindfulness can help refocus your energy and rejuvenate how you’re feeling in the moment.
During your mini-break, sit down somewhere comfy and turn your attention fully to the feeling of your feet touching the floor or your back against the padding of your seat. Activate your senses, what can you smell, see, hear, or taste in this moment? To make the most of this time, you really want to focus on your body rather than whatever you have been working on.
4. Don’t Do Too Many Things at Once
This may seem obvious to some, but it’s so easy to get side-tracked in this smartphone-dominated world. If you’ve started doing something only to forget what you’re working on, dial it back a little. Focus on completing just one task at a time.
Limiting yourself will help you to delegate your full attention to whatever you’re working on and reduce any stress you may be feeling about your workload. At the end of the day, mindfulness is not just about working on your breathing or practicing meditation techniques. It is also about taking the time to be conscious of your overall mental well-being and how your actions may be affecting you.
What the Science Says
Ultimately, if you’re struggling with your mental health you should not look to mindfulness as the perfect solution. Despite all its popularity, the science around mindfulness meditation remains pretty murky. Specifically, it’s unclear exactly how mindfulness impacts the human brain and to what extent it can influence our health or help those of us struggling with mental challenges. Many psychologists, neuroscientists and meditation experts are afraid that the hype around mindfulness is simply outpacing the scientific evidence.
Nicholas Van Dam, a clinical psychologist and psychological science researcher at the University of Melbourne, suggests potential benefits of mindfulness may be overshadowed and oversold for financial gain. In America, mindfulness meditation and training is now a $1.1 billion industry within itself. Although Van Dam does not believe mindfulness meditation to be entirely devoid of positive effects, he says “the scientific rigour just isn’t there yet to be making these big claims.”
An Issue of Definition…
The problem with mindfulness is the amount of confusion around its definition. While meditation has been practised for thousands of years, it has only been studied within the last few decades. According to a report released in Perspectives on Psychological Science, many of the studies on mindfulness and meditation are poorly designed, with inconsistent definitions of what mindfulness is and inadequate control groups. As the authors wrote, “[there is no] one universally accepted technical definition of ‘mindfulness’ nor any broad agreement about detailed aspects of the underlying concept to which it refers.”
So, Is It Just a Fad?
The jury is still out on that one! Until we see more research and conclusive findings, it is difficult to say how beneficial mindfulness truly is to our mental health. At the end of the day, we all work differently! So, if you’re looking to settle your mind after a long day, the practice of mindfulness meditation could be a helpful tool to get you into the right headspace. Yet, if you are struggling with your mental health it is always a good idea to speak to a medical professional about the best option for you.
For more help, here are some organisations you could reach out to:
- Beyond Blue – Information and support services for depression and anxiety matters | Phone: 1300 22 46 36
- Lifeline – 24 hour phone counselling service | Phone 13 11 14
- Mensline Australia – Dedicated service for men regarding relationship and family concerns | Phone: 1300 78 99 78
- Parentline – Phone service for parents and carers of children | Phone: 1300 1300 52
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