Mindfulness: a recipe for well-being
If you find yourself often worrying about what is going to happen in the future or what you did wrong in the past, you should probably learn how to use mindfulness practices in your daily routine.
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, mindfulness is “the practice of being aware of your body, mind and feelings in the present moment, thought to create a feeling of calm”.
Mindfulness as a modern, Western practice, finds its origins in Zen and Buddhism. In fact, meditation is at the basis of mindfulness and was at the core of the studies of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded in 1979 the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme at the University of Massachusetts.
In the beginning, this practice was meant to offer treatment to people chronically suffering from anxiety and depression. Over time, however, it has been proved to help not only people with mental health problems but to be beneficial to healthy people too, helping them overcome the daily challenges that stem from a busy, stressful life.
At the core of mindfulness practice is bringing one’s attention to the present moment, on purpose and not judgmentally. Focusing on the “here and now” helps us drift from the mental auto-pilot model that occurs when we allow our mind to be stuck in a default mental activity. In those moments, we are not engaged in the present and may fall into ruminating, spending time and energy dwelling on negative thoughts related to something that occurred in the past or to the possible bad outcome of future events (e.g. a social situation, an exam, a job interview).
This mental activity has a powerful influence on our body’s reactions. In fact, the brain will activate a “fight or flight” response - a physiological response when an immediate danger, real or perceived, comes up - triggering the release of hormones to temporarily change the way the body is functioning and enable appropriate actions: to run away, to fight, or to freeze to be a less visible target. This reaction was designed for our ancestors to fight or escape predators but, for most of us, it is much more likely to be triggered by mental, not physical concerns. The threats do not come from the world outside us but from our mind, in the form of worries.
In the long run, this process, if often repeated outside of our awareness, will cause a wear-and-tear effect on our system (allostatic load), causing problems such as hardening of arteries and ageing of the brain, as well as “wiring” it for stress.
If you are prone to worrying and ruminating, mindfulness meditation can be of great help. By focusing on your breathing, trying to release any tensions in your body and allowing your thoughts to come and go without judgement, you will detach your mind from the negative thoughts that trigger anxiety and you will be able to recognise and switch off the inappropriate activation of the response.
In the beginning, you may find it difficult to sit still and bring attention to your breath or the sensations in your body. Inevitably, the attention may start to wonder, but that’s perfectly normal. You have just to bring it gently back to your breath, without judgment. Over time, you will get more and more comfortable with this practice. If it becomes part of your daily routine, you will notice that your stress and anxiety levels will have reduced.
Meditation is one technique, but there are other ways to incorporate mindfulness into your life.
Bringing full attention to your daily activities can be another technique to keep your mind in the present moment. When cooking, eating, doing household chores, taking a walk in the park, try to savour every moment and pay attention to details. The texture of the food you are eating, the chirping of the birds, even the sound of your car's engine when you're driving.
Research shows that a regular practice of mindfulness activities helps reinforce the immune system and provides long-term beneficial effects to our health, slowing down the rate of ageing of our DNA.
In coaching, mindfulness can be an effective tool when working with clients suffering from stress and anxiety. Including mindfulness techniques in the coaching session will help the client learn to recognise and manage the stress response, both important for optimal well-being and performance.