Mindfulness For Mental Health

Mindfulness For Mental Health

Mindfulness is one of the most important mental health coping skills I think you can learn.

Personally, it’s had an absolutely enormous impact on the way I live my life. Before learning about mindfulness I was utterly ignorant of it. I reacted instinctively to life, its joys and its problems.

Unfortunately, reacting instinctively is not the best way to deal with life when you have poor coping skills. My default was to run away from any unpleasant sensations, feelings or emotions. That was a recipe for disaster.

Thankfully, I have now come to realise that with mindfulness we can stay present in our lives and choose how to respond to experiences as they happen. It sounds simple, but the effect on your life can be dramatic!

Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:

Introduction: What Is Mindfulness?
Meditation V Mindfulness
Negativity Bias And Its Role In Depression And Anxiety
Coming Back To Mindfulness
Mindfulness As Meta-Awareness
Mindfulness Without Judgement
Reasons To Be Mindful
1: Being present means not being in the past or the future.
2: Mindfulness helps to relieve pain
3: Mindfulness helps relieve anxiety, depression and stress
4: Mindfulness for weight loss.
5: Mindfulness for focus and attention.
6: Better quality sleep
7: Mindfulness helps to integrate your whole being
Summary

Introduction: What Is Mindfulness?

I wanted to use an image to illustrate mindfulness at this point in the article. After all, if an image is worth a thousand words, that’ll save me from an awful lot of typing. It’ll also save you from reading a thousand words! đŸ™‚

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the images I saw when I searched for “mindfulness”. Invariably it was calm, serene people sitting on the tops of mountains. I’m pretty sure they were meditating.

Meditating on the top of a mountain

So, the first thing we need to do is understand the difference between mindfulness and meditation.

Meditation V Mindfulness

You need mindfulness to meditate, but you don’t need to meditate to be mindful.

I think people get “mindfulness” and “meditation” confused, probably because the two words often appear together as “mindfulness meditation”.

Mindfulness is required to meditate, so the phrase “mindfulness meditation” describes the inner circle in the diagram above.

However, mindfulness can be used on its own. In fact, I’d suggest using mindfulness as much of the time as possible. That’s the area of the mindfulness circle outside of “meditation”.

Meditation is the act of connecting to yourself. Through slowing down and concentrating on your breathing you make an intuitive connection to yourself and build the muscles of awareness and attention, which makes you better at being mindful during the rest of the day.

Meditation has huge benefits for understanding yourself and your place in the world.

But for the time when you’re not meditating, you can still be mindful.

By using mindfulness, you’ll be aware of your thoughts, feelings and intentions from minute to minute, in every situation. You’ll see the choices you have and can choose how to respond, rather than react. You’ll be much more likely to make the right choice for yourself and others.

To me, you need to be mindful to meditate, but you don't need to meditate to be mindful.

OK, so now we’ve sorted mindfulness from meditation, what exactly is mindfulness?

Mindfulness for mental health: What is mindfulness?
What Is Mindfulness?

To me, “mindfulness” is synonymous with “awareness”. It means being fully present in the moment and aware of yourself, including your thoughts, body sensations, feelings and behaviour.

You can be mindful in every minute of every day, although, I think that’s difficult.

We’re very good at “vegging out” and being mindless. Consider when you were last driving a familiar route. Did you enter “autopilot” and barely remember how to got from A to B? What about your last meal? Did you eat it on “autopilot” and barely remember what it was you ate? What about the last TV show you watched. Was it good, or do you barely remember it? đŸ™‚

Another way we exist without being mindful is to think about events that happened in the past or may happen in the future. While it’s possible to do that positively, such as replaying happy memories from the past, or actively planning something enjoyable for the future, most people’s minds will lean towards the negative.

Negativity Bias And Its Role In Depression And Anxiety

Negativity Bias Is Wired Into Our Brains
Negativity Bias Is Wired Into Our Brains

A lot of people don’t know that our minds have an in-built negativity bias.

There is ample empirical evidence for an asymmetry in the way that adults use positive versus negative information to make sense of their world; specifically, across an array of psychological situations and tasks, adults display a negativity bias, or the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information. (source)

Instead of just being neutral, our minds are actually hard-wired to look for things that may cause us harm in our environment. The reasoning is that, evolutionarily, it was much more important for us to spot potential dangers around us than it was to notice something beneficial.

Something negative could put us in mortal danger which means if we overlook it, we won’t have a future. On the other hand, the beneficial thing will probably be there tomorrow and missing out today may not be particularly important.

So, if that’s the way our brains are wired, how likely is it that we’ll bring up positive memories or negative ones? How likely is it that when we consider the future we’ll expect to have things go wrong or impact us negatively? Is it any wonder we dwell on negative memories and risk depression, or predict failure and risk anxiety?

Just knowing that we have this negativity bias can help alleviate mental suffering. If we’re feeling down on ourselves, we can try to issue a reset in the form of, “this is just my negativity bias and I’m not going to allow it to continue”. By the same token, anxiety about the future can be laid at the door of negativity bias and ignored.

Coming Back To Mindfulness

Mindfulness: Being aware of your thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, actions, behaviours.
Mindfulness: Being aware of your thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, actions, behaviours.

Just as I pulled you into a segue there about negativity bias, but I’m now returning us to the main theme of mindfulness, you can imagine the same thing happening with either depressive or anxious thoughts taking you away from the present. Catching yourself and and pulling yourself back into the present is an act of mindfulness.

So, we can be mindful at any time of the day, no matter who we’re with or what we’re doing. In fact, the more mindful we are throughout the day, the better choices and decisions we’re likely to make.

When you’re fully aware of each moment, it’s easy to make better choices. You try to spend that moment as wisely as possible.

You choose to attend to chores, not as tiresome events you want to delay and run away from, but as things you can do, right now, to feel productive and good about yourself. Isn’t that a complete revelation? You stop procrastinating and become productive just by being present in the moment!

Hard work = Satisfaction

Mindfulness As Meta-Awareness

"Just take it one moment at a time = mindfulness"
“Just take it one moment at a time = mindfulness”

Sometimes I think of mindfulness as meta-awareness… being aware that you’re aware.

Meta-cognition is when you’re aware of and think about your own thoughts. Try it now. What did you think when you read “meta-cognition”? Did you think, “what on Earth’s that?”, “hmm, that rings a bell” or, “that sounds too technical for me!”

If you were aware that you thought, “that sounds too technical for me!”, you’d be able to see that you put yourself down. Your “inner critic” gave you a message. If you were aware, you’d be able to think about that thought (meta-cognition) and hopefully argue against it by thanking the inner critic for its input, then choosing to say to yourself that you’re smart enough to learn anything and keep reading!

This is "Awareness / Choice / Change" in action. You had awareness of the negative thoughts, you then had a choice of how to respond and you chose to change your default response. The power of that action flow is immense. Without awareness, you'd have no choice and your behaviour would've been instinctive and based on old patterns, with no possibility of change.

But mindfulness doesn’t just apply to thinking. It also applies to how you feel and how that feeds into the choices you make and the actions you take, or don’t take. Which is why I think of mindfulness as meta-awareness, not just meta-cognition.

For example, if you thought, “that sounds too technical for me!”, you probably also felt something. There may have been a sensation in your body triggered by that inner-critic thought. If the sensation was to feel small, less energetic and uncomfortable, you may have wanted to get up and leave.

If you were aware of the thought, the sensation and your potential reaction, you’d have the choice whether or not to react that way.

But if you weren’t aware of the thought, the feeling or the potential reaction you’ll probably be making yourself a cup of coffee right now with a nice cookie to assuage your uncomfortable inner feelings which you didn’t acknowledge.

Do you see how incredibly powerful this awareness is? It’s not too big a leap from eating a cookie due to an unacknowledged uncomfortable feeling to being overweight or obese, which generates inflammation in the body and affects people’s mental health. It’s a vicious circle which society desperately needs a solution to.

The choice may have not been a cookie but a different addictive behaviour such as gambling, alcohol, video games, shopping, exercise, social media, tv box sets etc etc. The root of the problem is unacknowledged uncomfortable feelings and the solution is mindful awareness.

However, being mindful comes with a cost. The phrase “paying attention” contains the word “paying” because there’s an associated cost. You need to make a mindful effort to be present in the moment. It gets easier with time, but most people either don’t know anything about mindfulness or find it hard to do initially and stop.

Mindfulness is a skill. It can be developed over time, but isn’t easy initially. You may start out with just a few minutes each day of being truly present. You may find it easier to be aware of your thoughts than your feelings. No-one starts out having mastered a skill. Be gentle with yourself and imagine that you’re a novice but are willing to learn. That’s the attitude of everyone who eventually becomes skilful.

Mindfulness Without Judgement

Observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judgement
Observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judgement

One of the important aspects of mindfulness is that we take the perspective of an observer. We see our own thoughts and feelings as they happen in real time which allows us to learn about ourselves before making the right choices and the right response to any given situation.

We need to be neutral in order to get the most out of being mindful, and that means accepting and not judging what we think or feel.

If we feel a feeling within our body and judge it as “negative” and shut it down, we’re no longer being mindful. We’ve already made a choice and reacted.

What we want to do is examine that feeling and try to understand what it’s telling us. We need to be curious. Perhaps, as a former scientist, that’s the aspect I’m drawn to. Scientists are curious people at their very core. To be a good scientist you need to have an open mind, gather facts and generate a hypothesis about what’s going one which you can test. The same holds true for mindfulness. We need to keep an open mind, learn what we can from our thoughts and feelings and then try to understand what’s going on and how to respond, not react. If we react, we’ve jumped ahead and missed the opportunity to learn from the situation and our thoughts and feelings about it.

Reasons To Be Mindful

Reveal yourself to yourself with mindfulness, and gain these advantages.
Reveal yourself to yourself with mindfulness, and gain these advantages.

Let’s look at some benefits of using mindfulness for mental health:

1: Being present means not being in the past or the future.

Mindfulness keeps you in the present moment
Mindfulness keeps you in the present moment

I’ve already mentioned this briefly, but many people dwell on aspects of their past, usually negative ones. This usually causes them pain and suffering in the present.

However, things that have already happened are historic and can’t be changed. If you can exert any influence over what has happened, perhaps by trying to make amends with someone you’ve wronged by apologising and changing your behaviour, then you should probably do that. But after you’ve done that, it’s time to show self-compassion, forgive yourself and move on. By dwelling on past mistakes, you’re robbing yourself of the present, and the present is the only moment we truly have.

By the same token, being anxious about the future and constantly wondering, “what if” will also rob you of the present. The future is not written, so worrying about it serves you no purpose because you’re worrying about an uncontrollable event. The best you can do is put reasonable plans in place, then accept that there will always be an element of the future beyond your control. Letting the future rob you of the present means you’re unable to actually live your life fully.

Being mindful brings you to the present. It takes you out of the past and the future, which will help reduce feelings of depression or anxiety depending on where you were spending your time. It will let you live your life fully, being more in control of the only thing you can exert any control over, namely your thoughts, feelings and reactions to the current moment.

2: Mindfulness helps to relieve pain

Mindfulness for pain relief
Mindfulness for pain relief

While mindfulness can’t stop pain, it can help to alleviate the suffering that pain causes.

Mindfulness helps people to focus on the present and listening to incoming signals from the body without judgement. Seeing the pain as neutral helps avoid thinking negatively about it and getting stuck in ruminating thoughts which makes you feel worse.

Paying attention to the pain over other cues is known as “attentional bias” which can exacerbate chronic pain. Mindfulness helps reorient the person’s attention away from an over-focus on the pain, thereby reducing it.

"Study findings provide the first indication that a mindfulness-oriented intervention may reduce pain AB among adults suffering from chronic pain." (source. AB = attentional bias)

When you’re in the present moment you can try to relax your body and muscles and imagine warming and soothing the painful locations. While you can’t do this every moment of the day, it would only take a few moments to “check in” with the pain and try to alleviate the discomfort of it.

According to this review:

"Mindfulness meditation–based interventions improve pain symptomology across a wide spectrum of pain-related disorders, including fibromyalgia,1467 migraine,68 chronic pelvic pain,61 irritable bowel syndrome,1213 and other conditions.69" (see references therein)

If you can master the ability to focus on things other than your pain then your mental health will benefit.

3: Mindfulness helps relieve anxiety, depression and stress

Mindfulness for mental health: anxiety, fear, depression and stress
Mindfulness for mental health: anxiety, fear, depression and stress

As I’ve already indicated, bringing your attention to the present means you’re no longer ruminating about events from the past and your role in them. This can alleviate feelings of depression, loneliness, sadness and unhappiness.

"Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent depression in people who have had 3 or more bouts of depression in the past." (NHS)

Mindfulness will also bring the thoughts of a person with anxiety to the present from the future and thereby alleviate feelings of worry, nervousness and anxiousness.

On a similar note, mindfulness helps defuse stressful situations. If you’re not mindful, stress generates feelings of overwhelm and an inability to cope. However, when you’re fully present in the moment and can recognise a situation as stressful it lets you think more clearly about what to do next.

Perhaps just saying to yourself in your head that you recognise this as stressful and are able to cope will help. Perhaps taking deep, slow, steadying breaths will help. Perhaps you’ll recognise that you need to remove yourself from the situation for a while.

All of those are positive responses which will reduce your stress and avoid any possibility of reacting instantly and negatively which could have dire ramifications.

Mindfulness can therefore be very beneficial to your mental health in many ways.

4: Mindfulness for weight loss.

"All the weight loss advice in the world means nothing if you're eating for comfort not calories"
“All the weight loss advice in the world means nothing if you’re eating for comfort not calories”

Weight loss is a complicated topic. On this website I have an article about the epigenetics of crash dieting and how it can sabotage a person’s weight loss attempts. I also have an article about how being overweight or obese can affect a person’s mental health through molecules released into the blood by fat tissue actually affecting your brain. It’s incredible.

So, I’m not going to pretend that weight loss is easy. I’m pretty sure most people who are overweight or obese comfort eat to some degree or other. And seeing as I put the above image on the EpiCentering Instagram page, I’d be a hypocrite if I started handing out weight loss advice to people who need to address why they’re comfort eating.

However, if we accept that there may be deeper psychological issues that need addressing to completely resolve a comfort eating problem, and accept that doing that is beyond the scope of this article, I can then offer this advice…

Mindfulness will help you make healthy choices about food. It’s a fact. When you’re in the present moment, you have awareness. Here are some examples of how it’ll help…

1: When you’re feeling a bit peckish. Without mindfulness you may just go and grab something to eat. Of course, that’s likely to be a calorie-laden snack. With mindfulness you can recognise the sensation of hunger and realize that you’re less than an hour away from your next meal. You can then decide whether to wait for that meal or not. Generally, you’ll make the decision to wait, which means you’re less likely to overeat that day (or more likely to lose weight, however you’d like to look at it).

2: Just before you grab a snack. Mindfulness can help you catch yourself. You can ask yourself, before picking up the snack, whether or not you really want it. Is this something that will nourish your mind and body? Generally, you’ll decide that, no, you don’t actually want the unhealthy snack. You can then decide to either get a healthy snack or that you don’t actually want anything. Again, this helps with weight control.

3: When eating your meals. Mindfully eating means you’ll be more conscious of the food’s flavours and textures. You’ll enjoy your meal more. You’ll eat more slowly and give your body time to tell your mind when you’ve had enough (satiety signalling). Generally that feedback takes about 20 minutes, by which time most people have mindlessly consumed one plateful and are probably onto their second. This is a much easier thing to do than portion control, with the same effect.

As this article is about mindfulness for mental health it’s important to note that losing weight will naturally improve your mental health as you feel lighter, stronger and more capable. You’ll also feel better due to achieving your goal of shifting some excess pounds.

This scientific study showed that overweight and obese people with serious mental illnesses who were either given a gym membership or gym membership plus access to a personal trainer all significantly reduced depressive symptoms over 12 months

"We found that depressive symptoms decreased significantly over a 12-month period for our entire sample of overweight and obese adults with serious mental illness randomized to either the In SHAPE intervention or gym membership comparison group."

5: Mindfulness for focus and attention.

An example of focussed attention!
An example of focussed attention!

Another benefit of mindfulness is that it helps bring your concentration into the moment which may help with studying, exam performance, job performance and the multitude of other tasks which require concentration.

If you’re one of life’s procrastinators (I’m a recovering procrastinator!), then mindfulness may be very helpful in pulling your attention back to the task you’re trying to avoid.

Sometimes we just need a break. During the writing of this article I’ve heeded my mind saying it’s time to do something else for a while.

It’s definitely OK to mindfully take a break to recharge your mind. However, when you take a break also be mindful that it can easily turn into procrastination. If you catch yourself spinning the break out or not wanting to get back to writing (as if!), you’re mindfully catching yourself procrastinating. That’s how mindfulness can help bring you back to your tasks and make you more productive.

While the scientific studies in this area are relatively sparse, there are early signs that mindfulness may be helpful for people with ADHD

"Mindfulness training is a feasible intervention in a subset of ADHD adults and adolescents and may improve behavioral and neurocognitive impairments. A controlled clinical study is warranted." 

6: Better quality sleep

Mindfulness improves your sleep quality
Mindfulness improves your sleep quality

Quite an unexpected benefit of mindfulness is that it may well improve your quality of sleep. One of the problems people suffering from mental health issues often have is disturbed sleep. Being able to improve their sleep patterns could well help to alleviate the suffering of people with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. Early results are encouraging

These preliminary findings suggest that mindfulness meditation may be effective in treating some aspects of sleep disturbance. 

It actually makes sense when you think about it. If you’re going from “auto-pilot” to “mindful”, your brain is probably working a lot harder.

Being aware of your thoughts and feelings as an “observer” means more computational work for your mind. In addition, it then needs to decide what to do with that additional information.

Whole decision trees open up as you consider your options rather than reacting instinctively. And if mindfulness helps improve your empathy (see below), then the decision tree gets more complicated as you include reference to the impact of what you do on others.

That’s got to be a lot more work and make your brain a lot more tired at the end of the day.

Personally, since incorporating mindfulness, I’ve slept better than ever before. I’m out like a light and sleep like a log!

7: Mindfulness helps to integrate your whole being

Mindfulness helps you be aware of and integrate your thoughts and emotions
Mindfulness helps you be aware of and integrate your thoughts and emotions (from Instagram)

As I said at the beginning of this article, I used to have no connection to feelings and emotions. I ran my life on auto-pilot, without self-awareness. You can’t appreciate the feelings or emotions of other people when you’re not in touch with your own. Doing things on instinct without caring about others is a recipe for disaster.

Mindfulness helps you recognise what you’re feeling in the moment. You can then integrate those feelings into your decision making. Furthermore, you can also have empathy with others and integrate how they’re feeling into your response.

Suddenly you’re making much, much better decisions which benefit not only you, but those around you too. That impacts your mental health because you appreciate yourself for making the right decisions, and others appreciate you being inclusive.

Summary

Using mindfulness for mental health issues really seems to have multiple benefits without the possible adverse reactions of pharmaceutical interventions. Mindfulness helps in a whole raft of ways to reduce the symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress.

Simply bringing your attention to the present moment prevents ruminating thoughts of past incidents which can trigger depression or worries about the future which trigger anxiety.

Neil Shearing, Ph.D.
Neil Shearing, Ph.D.