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Health Tips & Advice

How to Practise Mindfulness

By Dr. Amanda Beaman, Medcan clinical psychologist

A daily mindfulness practice can help relieve anxiety and increase focus.

We want to be able to do it all—hit every work deadline, say yes to every invite and attend all of our children’s events. But when we spend all our time prepping, planning or worrying about how we’re going to do it all, we’re prevented from being present in the moment. To further compound the problem, the smart technologies that we increasingly depend on are designed to hijack our attention repeatedly throughout the day (or hour!). Distractions, combined with dwelling on the past or anticipating the future, can contribute to a shrinking attention span and increased feelings of anxiety or depression. So what can we do? Practising mindfulness is one of the best ways to help us be more resilient to distractions, focus our attention on what is happening in the present and, over time, it can improve our physical and mental wellbeing.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a state of being and a state of awareness that arises from paying purposeful attention to the present moment, to our surroundings, our sensations or our feelings. When our attention starts to wander, the mindfulness practice gently encourages us to bring our attention back to the present moment, again and again.

Mindfulness Meditation was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and arose out of Buddhist and other spiritual traditions that were practised for thousands of years as an initial step to achieving enlightenment. It has been widely studied and shown to be effective in managing stress, anxiety, depression and other chronic health conditions. This Journal of American Medical Association review found that mindfulness meditation helps to improve feelings of anxiety, depression and even chronic pain.

How can mindfulness help?

Over time, a mindfulness practice can help us understand how our patterned ways of reacting to stressors, big or small, may be unhelpful. It is not uncommon to deal with worry, stress or negative thoughts by engaging in destructive patterns of avoidance. Instead of bringing attention to our experience of stress, we may distract ourselves with social media, TV, friends, substances, food or something else that takes us away from the moment. By gradually approaching our stressors with kindness and curiosity, we can learn to tolerate discomfort better and respond to it, rather than react habitually. Over time this can dissipate it. The mindfulness practice has been shown to slow down our reactivity, creating space for more thoughtful responses to stress. Researchers found that participating in an eight-week mindfulness program helps the neural networks in the brain’s prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that modulates control of emotion and impulses) become more active, while the neural networks in the amygdala (the part of the brain that processes threats or fear) become less active when faced with stress. This suggests that a mindfulness practice improves our ability to regulate our emotions.

How to practise mindfulness

There’s no need to leave your home, or even your desk, to reap the benefits of mindfulness. We all have the innate ability to drop into a mindful state—however, we may be a bit rusty! You can be mindful of your surroundings anywhere. Simply take a few minutes to notice what’s happening around you. Our attention can be habitually elsewhere, so make a conscious effort to feel your feet against the ground or the rhythm of your breath. Notice emotions that arise and observe whether you are reacting to or judging them. If your attention starts to move away from your intended focus, do your best to bring your attention back to your breath and your body.

In a mindfulness practice, we aren’t trying to achieve a particular goal, we are simply practising noticing our present moment experience. Despite common misconceptions, mindfulness meditation is not necessarily about feeling Zen or relaxed. While that might be your experience, especially over time, the important part is that you become better able to sit with your experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant. If you’re new to mindfulness meditation, start with shorter sessions. Popular apps like Headspace, Calm and Ten Percent Happier offer five- and 10-minute sessions. If you prefer the support of others or accountability, try a virtual or in-person mindfulness group. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) are group programs that have been studied in randomized controlled trials and have been shown to lead to benefits such as reduced symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. MBCT has been shown to prevent relapse in depression.

Mindfulness meditation is an ongoing practice, not a skill you can master or conquer. Incorporating regular mindfulness sessions into your routine will give you more benefits than the odd session every few weeks. Our brains are used to working overtime and falling back into old habits, so be patient with yourself as you begin to practise mindfulness, and remember: the most important thing is to breathe.

Try this 10-minute Guided Mindfulness Meditation with Dr. Amanda Beaman

Seeking help optimizing your own mental wellness? Arrange a consultation with a Medcan psychologist.

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