Have you ever wanted to increase your willpower, make less impulsive choices, manage your emotions differently, or stick to a new diet or exercise plan for more than a few weeks? If you have, mindfulness practice could be an approach to consider.
Mindfulness is based on eastern meditation philosophy and involves paying attention purposely to the present moment without judgment. In doing so, it increases awareness and engagement in the present. Mindfulness is the opposite of absentmindedness, or automatic pilot, which occurs when we drive to work and have little memory of the trip when we arrive. Mindfulness focuses on accepting all thoughts and feelings for what they are, without judgment. Whether pleasant or unpleasant, thoughts and feelings are not suppressed or judged as being bad or wrong, they are simply accepted with the knowledge that they will eventually pass. In this way, you become less reactive to thoughts and feelings, particularly those that are distressing, upsetting, or in the case of weight management, linked to unhelpful eating habits.
Mindfulness practice has been associated with a host of physical and psychological benefits including:
- Increased self-control
- Improved objectivity
- Improved affect tolerance and emotion regulation
- Reduced cognitive rumination (obsessive thoughts)
- Enhanced ability to hold your attention
- Improved responding to stressful or negative situations
- Improved cognitive flexibility
- Lowered impact of others’ moods on the self
- Growth in the brain regions associated with attention, and sensory processing
- Improved information processing, reduced task effort, and improved ability to hold attention in the face of distraction
- Improved immune functioning
Mindfulness can also play a major role in overcoming weight problems, particularly for people with difficulties relating to emotional or compulsive eating. By increasing your awareness of your internal processes you are better able to consciously choose actions that are helpful. You are also better attuned to your feelings of hunger and being full, which means that you avoid the mindless eating associated with boredom or grazing.
Underpinning all mindfulness practice, formal or informal, is the conscious and deliberate direction of our attention to:
- Focus on a particular aspect of the experience;
- Observe this aspect of experience and when thoughts, feelings, or sensations arise that take attention away from your focus, notice these without judgment; and
- Return your attention to the original focus when you notice your attention drifting.
Mindfulness is like any skill and for it to be effective you need to practice. There are a host of different mindfulness activities to explore, and we are going to introduce you to just one here. This basic mindfulness activity can form the foundation of an effective mindfulness practice, and is your skills increase with repetition, can be supplemented with new and more targeted activities.
Mindfulness of Breath:
The mindfulness of breath exercise is a particularly powerful way to help you stop and tune into your internal world. It will help you recognise and discriminate between various thoughts and emotions and understand the changing nature of your internal world. Through this exercise you can learn to appreciate that thoughts and emotions, even the most distressing ones, do not last forever. They are all transient, and you have the inherent ability to withstand uncomfortable emotions without resorting to unhelpful coping strategies, like turning to food.
Many people find this exercise challenging. They worry that they are not ‘doing it right’, or that by directing their attention inwards any negative emotions they experience may become overwhelming. This is normal and it takes time to get used to mindfulness practice. Remember: thoughts and emotions don’t last forever and noticing your mind wandering is a good thing – it means that your awareness is increasing.
To give this a try just click on the link to the audio file at the end of this article, this will take you to a 3-minute guided mindfulness meditation. Also, consider the following tips to maximize the effectiveness of your mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness Tips: Making your Mindful Practice Effective
- Regardless of what happens during your practice keep going, it doesn’t matter! This was your personal experience, keep going.
- If you mind wanders off, that is ok. Simply notice where it wandered to and bring it back to breath.
- There is no right or wrong when it comes to mindfulness so try to let go of any judgement you make about ‘how well you are doing’.
- Have no expectations. If you expect relaxation and it does not happen it can be frustrating which leads us to start chasing something which in itself if not conducive to mindfulness acceptance.
- Be kind to yourself and approach the practice with a curious mind rather than a critical mind.
- Falling asleep is not mindfulness, so if you notice this happening simply draw your attention back to your breath or open your eyes for a few moments if you need to.
- If you feel emotional during your practice, notice what thoughts or emotions make your feel this way, take note of them and chose to investigate them further after your practice.
- If you notice pain or discomfort, that is ok. Notice the discomfort and try to breath into it, see if the sensation changes or moves.
- Mindfulness does not equal relaxation.
- Make yourself as comfortable as possible and avoid places you are likely to be interrupted.
To get the most from your mindfulness practice set yourself a challenge of completing this activity every day for two weeks and really take advantage of the benefits of increased mindfulness.
Good luck and happy mindfulness!