You’ve probably heard a lot about Mindfulness recently but what is it?
Mindfulness is already known to be successful in helping people with mental and physical health problems, from stress, depression and anxiety to chronic pain, eating disorders and concentration, boosting productivity at work, and giving a greater enjoyment of life. But how does it work? Is it a new breathing technique or a way of focussing on your bodily sensations?
During Mental Health Awareness Week 11-17 May, which raises awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues mindfulness has been chosen so more people can learn how it can be used and why it’s so beneficial. I talked to Vicky Thomson, a Peer Support worker at Leeds Mind to find out more.
Vicky Thomson works for Leeds Mind which is a not-for-profit organisation in Leeds which is dedicated to helping people have better mental health. Vicky works in Peer Support, which is a service that she initially used herself; for her own mental health needs.
How can mindfulness help me?
Vicky says: “I feel that Peer Support can be very powerful, as it values a person’s own experience of their mental health. We are all experts of our own experience and within Peer Support we share this to help others and ourselves, rather than there being an expert at the front. It helped me to create meaningful connections, to build confidence and to feel more empowered.
An important part of my own journey has been practising Mindfulness. It’s helped me to manage my response to stress, to be kinder towards myself, to become more aware of my feelings and things which may trigger me in some way. In this way it’s helped me to have more choice over how I respond to things. It’s allowed me to spend some time being in the present!”
So, what is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is borrowed from Buddhism and is now popular in the West. It’s offered in many settings within Leeds, including the NHS and here at Leeds Mind. It’s not specifically for one group of people, although it’s been recommended for stress, anxiety, pain-management and to help prevent relapse of depression. We are all human with complex minds living in a complex world. I think that anybody can benefit from Mindfulness, if it works for you.
Once the skills have been learnt, it’s easy to practise alone, although I’ve found that sometimes it’s helpful to do so with others.
I would describe ‘being mindful’ as coming into the present moment, but it’s also much more than that! Spending time in the present; means that I’m spending less time worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. It’s a healthy respite for me.
Jon Kabat-Zinn describes Mindfulness as:
‘Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally’
The practice of Mindfulness involves focusing one’s attention on something, such as our breath or sounds, thoughts, feelings and sensations. This focusing of attention is the practise. By practising, it makes it easier for us to be more mindful in daily life, as things arise. Mindfulness is often described as a muscle, the more we practise the stronger it becomes.
There are different ways to practise Mindfulness. Sitting meditation involves taking time to sit quietly and practise. When sitting, I usually place my attention lightly on my breath. I often think of my breath as the sea, with the waves coming in and out. I find this relaxing and it helps to settle my mind. When my mind wanders which it will, as that’s what minds do, I can gently bring my attention back to the breath. If my mind wanders a thousand times, I try to bring it back a thousand times. With kindness!
… I quite like focusing on sounds! You could try it if you want? Just stop reading this for a second. Place your attention on sounds without interpreting them, just let them come and go, sounds that are near and sounds that are far, sounds that are inside and sounds that are outside. Try it for five minutes. If your attention wanders just gently bring it back, with kindness, to the sounds. If you are able to, it may be helpful to close your eyes. How did that feel?
I sometimes complete a daily activity in a mindful way; such as having a shower, eating something, having a drink or brushing my teeth. I use the five senses to explore what I’m doing. How does the water feel on the skin? Is it hot or cold? What does it look like? Does it make a noise? What does it taste like?
I don’t beat myself up if I don’t practise Mindfulness regularly. I find that I slip into it throughout the day, informally. I can put my attention on my breath or on sounds for a short while, without anyone really noticing. I also try to notice nice things; it’s a great time of year for this, a time of renewal and rebirth – spring! Yesterday I enjoyed a lovely evening walk in the woods and saw many pretty blue bells. Sometimes it’s nice to stand and stare for a while.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
William Henry Davies
At Leeds Mind we have a Peer Support Group Work Programme. We offer courses and workshops, including Mindfulness and Self Compassion, for people who are experiencing mental health difficulties. It’s a very warm and welcoming environment.”
Thanks Vicky – you’ve certainly given us a lot to think about.
Debra Kerr, Communications Team, Leeds City Council