An Introduction to Mindfulness – and our Mindfulness Course in Essex

Mindfulness is an approach to life that teaches us how to focus our attention. Through regular practice, we can grow increasing awareness, clarity and acceptance of our surroundings.

The frantic nature of modern-day life means it can be difficult to quieten our minds and be in the moment. Our minds are teeming with thoughts about work, family and friends, what’s going on in the news, what’s going on with our health, the past, the future – you name it. So much so that we can often feel ready to burst.

Mindfulness helps us to pay attention to the here and now – and it can help us to cope with the stresses of everyday life. Where we have additional challenges in life, mindfulness can help us to manage pain, anxiety, low mood and the psychological impact of long-term health conditions as part of a wider programme of treatment.

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These sessions help you to learn and talk about your feelings in a confidential and private setting, with people who may feel a similar way. Each session is led by a qualified therapist who’ll help you to understand more about your problem and offer techniques to help you control and overcome it.

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For those with busy family lives, mobility issues, or other barriers to getting out and about, we’re able to offer help via phone therapy. We will arrange calls between you and a qualified therapist so that you can access the help you need at a time and place that’s convenient for you.

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If you’re unable to attend regular therapy in person, Therapy For You can set up video calls between you and a qualified therapist. During the sessions, you’ll be able to discuss issues that are causing you distress or making you feel uncomfortable. You’ll learn new techniques to help you overcome problems and help you to start feeling better.

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What is mindfulness and how did it start?

Mindfulness is generally understood to be an umbrella term for the efforts we make to take time to avoid distraction and get in touch with our experience in the here and now.

The modern idea of Mindfulness is attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who used it as a therapy for pain and illness from 1979. Professor Kabat-Zinn combined elements of meditation, yoga, body awareness as well as input from contemporary psychological theories to establish MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction); a short course aimed at training subjects to deal with pain, anxiety and low mood.

Jon Kabat-Zinn would be the first to acknowledge that meditation as a technique to centre the mind has of course been practiced for centuries. Professor Kabat-Zinn himself studied Zen Buddhism, yoga and meditation with Buddhist teachers from Vietnam, Korea and elsewhere. Mindfulness takes helpful elements of the practices developed by ancient religions and repackages them for a more secular age. Whatever your religious background, you can benefit from taking time out to centre the mind and be present in the moment, without necessarily connecting the experience with spirituality.

What is mindfulness meditation? Are there other mindfulness exercises?

Research from Harvard shows that the mind wanders 47% of the time. For many of us this statistic rings true: we feel like our attention is constantly flying off somewhere and find it difficult to remain focused on the here and now for extended periods. Mindfulness works from the principle that what you practice grows stronger. By practicing holding our attention in the present, we grow more able to remain focused in every area of life.

Meditation is the central practice of mindfulness. It’s the key exercise that allows us to focus the mind on the present. Other mindfulness exercises such as progressive muscle relaxation or focused breathing techniques tend to represent aspects of meditation, or methods of approaching the meditative state. By studying these techniques, we can take steps towards a more comprehensive mindfulness meditation practice.

How does mindfulness work?

By using various mindfulness techniques that anchor our attention either on certain sounds, feelings, thoughts or bodily sensations, we can train the mind to have greater control over our thoughts. With practice, we may hope to achieve a state where our attention is focused purely on the present, and find great contentment in merely existing in that moment.

The true goal of mindfulness however is not just to achieve this meditative state once or twice in a day, but to take the wellbeing, contentment and empathy that our mindful practices put us in touch with and to carry them through every aspect of our everyday lives. Ultimately, it’s hoped that this will allow us to live happier, healthier and more creative lives.

What is mindfulness therapy?

While mindfulness has been found to be beneficial for all of us, it can have specific therapeutic benefits for people who are struggling with their psychological wellbeing. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a type of psychotherapy that combines principles of mindfulness along with cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT.

CBT is central to the work we do at Therapy For You, and the treatments we offer are often based around cognitive behavioural therapy. Mindfulness also forms an important part of the range of treatments offered by the Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners, Counsellors and Cognitive Behavioural Therapists that work with Therapy For You.

Originally conceived as a treatment to prevent relapse among patients that had experienced repeated bouts of depression, MBCT has developed as a treatment for a whole range of conditions. We’re encouraged by the results we see in cases where mindfulness and CBT are used in tandem as treatment for low mood, stress, anxiety and panic attacks. You can learn more about our mindfulness course in Essex here.

What are the benefits of mindfulness that can we hope to achieve?

The prime aim of mindfulness is to build awareness, clarity and acceptance of our surroundings without judgment and to root our awareness in the present. In addition, a number of other medical and psychological goals can be achieved through either mindfulness practice alone or through mindfulness techniques in conjunction with CBT. And beyond even these goals, those that practice mindfulness regularly report that it brings a number of other advantages with regards to mood and creativity. Here are some of those reported health and happiness benefits:

A feeling of wellbeing and contentment

When we’ve spent some time successfully keeping at bay thoughts and distractions around the past or the future, we can experience a feeling of fulfilment that goes above and beyond merely taking a break from what worries us. We can feel as though we are experiencing the joy of life directly at first hand. This contentment at merely ‘being’ stays with us, and can be revisited throughout the day.

Freedom from striving

Life can feel like the pursuit of a series of goals, and this can be a helpful way to view it, helping us to be focused and productive. The downside of this approach is that, rather than remaining as a useful exercise in visualising our goals, it spreads to become the very core of how we think and feel.

This can mean that our base-line experience of life is one of yearning and striving for more. One of the aims of mindfulness is to achieve a contentment in the present moment that’s free from these yearnings, allowing us to relax and enjoy greater perspective and appreciation in life.

Freedom from agonising

The past can be hard to escape. We spend a lot of time reviewing our memories, reliving experiences and going over decisions and actions we took and what we could have done differently. While we undoubtedly learn from the past, one truth remains absolutely certain – it can never be changed. This truth leaves us with acceptance as the only option. Mindfulness can help us to embrace existence in the present as a way of accepting the past. In that moment where we are accepting and experiencing the present, we are free from agonising about situations from the past.

Reduced levels of stress

Relaxation of mind and body is a great stress reliever. Mindfulness can help you to let go of tension in your muscles as well as putting the mind in a peaceful place. Giving your mind and body a break during the actual mindful practice is just one of the benefits of mindfulness. It not only provides respite during the practice itself, but it carries through into everyday life, allowing us to deal with stressful situations calmly and effectively.

Physical Health

Improvements in general health have been shown among people practicing mindfulness. It is particularly effective in helping to reduce high blood pressure. A regular mindfulness routine has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol which is a stress hormone that causes elevated blood pressure.

Self-esteem

Mindfulness techniques have the power to help you to view yourself with increased positivity and acceptance. A 2009 study in America, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology showed that acceptance-based therapy based on mindfulness techniques, when applied by people experiencing of generalised anxiety disorders, was effective in improving levels of self-esteem over the course 2 months’ practice.

Weight loss

Of course, mindfulness won’t cause the pounds to start dropping off in and of itself, but people that have struggled to lose weight in the past have found that they’ve experienced considerably more success since they began practicing mindfulness. This may be due to a number of factors including: improvements in our self-esteem, increased self-control, and a generally more positive approach to life that leads us to engage more in activity and exercise.

In addition, practising mindfulness actually while we are eating can improve our experience and prevent us from absent-mindedly overeating. By inhabiting the moment, appreciating the taste, the aroma, the texture of each mouthful, not only do we enjoy our meals more, we become aware of when we’ve eaten a sufficient amount sooner than we would otherwise.

Better Sleep

The control we gain over our mental processes can help us to switch off at the end of the day. Remember: what we practice makes us stronger. Repeatedly flexing our capacity to calm our own minds makes us more able to bring our racing minds under control and prepare for sleep. It’s not a quick fix for insomnia, but routine practice will help develop our potential to be in charge of our thoughts rather than being at their mercy at bedtime. And the longer we live with mindfulness as part of our lives, the less intrusive our thoughts may become.

Creativity

Clearly this is a benefit that’s difficult to quantify but the reports we hear back from people that have committed to maintaining a daily routine of mindfulness is that their practice has cleared the way for new ideas and creative thoughts to come to the fore allowing them to feel more creative.

What are the benefits of mindfulness for anxiety?

Anxiety often takes the form of a response to stressful situations that it goes beyond preparing us to meet that situation and actually becomes counterproductive and distressing. Using mindfulness for anxiety can help by providing ways of facing stressful situations with an awareness of what’s going on in the moment.

By allowing us to feel a total connection with our surroundings in moments of stress, we can think and act in informed ways that actually get better results than if we are just reacting impulsively. As well as resulting in better decision-making, the whole experience becomes far less distressing for us!

Over time, our confidence in our ability to deal with the kinds of circumstances that we know to trigger anxiety will grow. This will allow us to meet those situations calmly as standard, reducing the overall anxiety we encounter in life. For further support, our mindfulness course is available here.

What are the effects of Mindfulness training on the brain?

Given that the roots of mindfulness are to be found in religious and spiritual practices, it’s easy to understand why someone from a secular background, or a committed atheist, might be sceptical.

There is plenty of evidence of improvements in mood and behaviour as a result of mindfulness meditation for sure. And we have already heard that levels of the stress hormone cortisol are reduced by meditation, providing evidence that stress and blood pressure are reduced through mindfulness

But there’s also scientific evidence that actual chemical and physical changes take place in the brains of those practicing meditation on a regular basis!

If we look at where the majority of activity occurs in the pre-frontal cortex of a test subject, we find that the left-to-right side ratio for activity in meditators is greater than non-meditators. We know that a higher left-to-right ratio is associated with happiness and contentment, whereas a higher right-to-left ratio tend to be found in less happy subjects or those suffering low mood or anxiety disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder.

But more startling is evidence that the physical areas of the brain responsible for attention, learning and empathy are actually enlarged through the practice of meditation. The grey matter density within those centres increases through practice and exercise in a process known as cortical thickening. It is also observed that the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in fight or flight responses and associated with stress depression and addiction, can actually shrink with continued mindful meditation.

This is due to a phenomenon known as “brain plasticity”. We can actually modify the very structure of our brains through mindfulness practice. This lecture by respected psychologist Shauna Shapiro explains some of the experimental evidence that demonstrates the changes to the brain shown in subjects that regularly meditate. In the case of the brain, just like our muscles, exercise can make specific areas larger and more effective. So, if you fancy changing your brain for the better, our mindfulness course is available here.

How to practice mindfulness meditation

People who enjoy successful results from their meditation practice tend to stick to a daily routine of meditating for around 20 minutes once or twice a day. Many people benefit from meditating once in the morning, and again in the afternoon. While 20 minutes is an admirable goal, you can start off meditating more briefly and work up to that. Remember that outside of the time you’ve set aside for meditation, you can always stop for a top up at any time of day or night when you feel you might benefit from reconnecting with your practice. Here are some pointers to help you when you’re thinking about establishing a meditation routine:

Make time in the day

Different times will work for different lifestyles. If you’re a parent, the morning can be a busy time, but by adjusting your routine, you may be able to find a window of opportunity by waking a little earlier, or taking a moment after you park your car at work. During a lunch hour too, it can be possible to find somewhere quiet like a local park or church, or even back in the car again. It’s worth the effort as you’ll feel the effects during the afternoon and evening.

Consider the setting

Meditation can be practised anywhere that you feel is quiet and private. Because our aim is to focus the attention, it’s best to pick somewhere that’s free from distraction. And because you’ll be closing your eyes to minimise stimulation from the outside world, you will want to feel safe and secure. Beyond that, many places can lend themselves perfectly to meditation.

Posture

You won’t be needing incense or candles (unless you really want to!), and there’s no need to sit cross legged on the floor either. Many people who practice a secular form of meditation such as mindfulness or transcendental meditation (TM) prefer to sit in a chair with their hands resting in their laps. Lying down is generally avoided owing to the likelihood of falling asleep. A nap is lovely, but it’s not the same thing as mindfulness meditation! Take time to shift around and get comfy before you begin.

Set a timer

Not only will setting a timer prevent you from getting carried away and missing an appointment, using a timer will free you from having to think about time while you are meditating, making the whole process that much easier. Make sure you set a pleasant alarm sound to help to bring you out of the meditation – you don’t want a harsh end to your pleasant meditation session! Consider an app on your phone to help you to start and end your meditation in a consistent way.

Relax and breathe

There are many techniques to help you get started with meditation, but it’s a good idea to close your eyes and begin by considering where abouts in your body you are storing tension. Is it your neck, your shoulders, your jaw? Once you’ve identified these spots, try to let go and relax. Allow the feeling of relaxation to spread throughout the body and become aware of your breathing.

Mantra, or no mantra?

Some people like to use a mantra while they meditate. Reciting a word or phrase silently in your head as you meditate can help to centre the attention, especially if focussing on breathing alone is proving a struggle. Some people think the mantra should be a series of sounds that have no meaning to us, but others prefer a word with meaning so that when the mind wanders, we can return to its meaning, rather than merely the sound. Note that we’re talking about a mantra that is repeated internally in silence, as opposed to the chanting out-loud that forms part of the practice of Nichiren Shōshū Buddhists and others.

Guided meditation

If you’re struggling alone, you could consider using a guided meditation via YouTube or an app on your phone. There’s a wealth of content available online, and while the quality can vary, we have never had better access to information about mindfulness and meditation as we do today. Beyond guided meditations, trusted sources like Therapy For You and TED talks like this one can offer further insight. Ultimately though, it’s great to be able to achieve a meditative state on our own, so that we are always equipped to carry out our routine whether or not we have a device or a data signal available to us.

Mindfulness courses with Therapy For You

While tips and research can help you to familiarise yourself with some of the ideas behind mindfulness, it’s no substitution for the kind of help and support you can receive from a dedicated course run by NHS professionals.

Therapy For You offers a mindfulness course that introduces you to the main concepts and helps you to develop mindfulness techniques to incorporate into a daily routine. In no time at all, you can expect to start feeling the benefits in your everyday life. If you’re someone that struggles with your psychological wellbeing, you may well find that mindfulness can help to reduce the symptoms of low-mood, anxiety and stress.

Discover our mindfulness course here, or get in touch to book a Telephone Assessment with one of our qualified therapists.

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