Mindfulness is the practice of directing our focus to our current experiences as they unfold without interpretation or judgment. It is about living in the moment with curiosity and acceptance of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Today, Western society has adopted mindfulness as a way of relieving stress and depression, helping people sleep better, and even managing their pain. Being mindful of one’s situation, body, and mind in a non-judgmental way is a step towards emotional strength and healing.
Mindfulness interventions include the practice of mindful meditation, deep breathing, stretching, and many other activities that relax the body, mind, and soul.
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Why practice mindfulness?
In people’s busy lives today, there is a tendency to dwell on whatever is currently causing pressure or anxiety as they try to solve problems and plan around the little bit of time they have, seeing to the needs of others and not giving themselves time to relax and focus their minds. People sometimes get trapped into dwelling on the past or fretting about the future and not paying enough attention to what they are currently dealing with and what they can achieve today.
These actions cause depression and anxiety. By focusing on the now, one can take a good look at what is worrying them, analyze and deal with the issues at hand, and then let them go. Life is sometimes so overwhelming, and removing oneself from the turmoil for a few moments, taking some deep breaths, and focusing on what is causing distress helps to analyze one’s innermost thoughts and concerns with a view to noting and then dismissing them.
Without interventions such as meditation and mindfulness, negative thought patterns can creep in, slowly becoming habits with harmful effects on our emotions and well-being. By learning to listen to their bodies and minds, people become healthier and more balanced, improving relationships with friends, partners, and ultimately themselves.
A natural consequence of a mindful state would also be to learn more about oneself, what triggers anxiety or negative feelings, and how to manage them before they take over and become a problem. The practice of being mindful develops concentration and discernment skills and can also help to weaken our habitual responses, such as binge eating or even substance abuse.
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Methodologies and benefits
Much research has gone into the benefits of mindfulness — however, there is still more to be done. Counselors practice mindfulness in various ways, and thus, the measurement of the degree of success in the different methods should probably differ, too.
Meditation and mindfulness have been around for centuries, with origins in Eastern countries where philosophies became part of religion. In the West, too, many religions preached mindfulness, encouraging people to lead moral and spiritual lives. The practices of meditation and mindfulness have become increasingly popular of late as people recognize their physical, mental, and spiritual benefits.
In recent years, psychological practice has been combined with meditative mindfulness philosophies, producing significant results in the treatment of various stress-related ailments. In the 1970s, mindfulness practices were formalized by Jon Kabat-Zinn into an eight-week program known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). This practice combines mindfulness with meditation therapies to reduce chronic stress.
Counselors who use the MBSR method use yoga and meditation in both group therapy and one-on-one counseling. They have found this method to be beneficial for people who are dealing with anxiety, stress, and depression. It is also said to alleviate pain, help with insomnia, reduce high blood pressure, and help people who are battling addiction.
Later, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) — the practice used by psychologists when helping people deal with psychological difficulties — was combined with MBSR to create a therapy known as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). This combination of cognitive therapy and mindful meditation is successfully used by counselors to treat people with anxiety and depression.
MBTI is the therapy used specifically to treat insomnia. Conventional medicine focuses on keeping us asleep, while a mindfulness-based therapist targets the behavioral elements of insomnia, such as stimulus control, sleep hygiene, sleep restriction, and emotional distress.
Where to start?
Mindfulness is something that can be practiced and perfected in group classes under the supervision of a counselor. In time, it almost becomes an automatic state of awareness and acceptance of one’s thoughts and actions. For chronic ailments such as severe stress, drug addiction, or chronic insomnia, it would be wise to consult the necessary specialist in that field or a psychoanalyst for a more holistic solution.
Setting aside a particular time of the day for meditation is ideal, but one can practice mindfulness while performing everyday functions such as walking and exercising. Practicing mindfulness outdoors is especially calming when surrounded by the beauty of nature. Mindfulness practitioners can encourage their patients to do this both during sessions and afterward.
These are some pieces of advice to offer patients:
Practicing mindfulness entails nurturing habits in everyday life while slowing down and paying attention. Do things with care, learn to say no to toxic situations, be creative, and connect with nature. It is important to accept and be kind to oneself.
Take some deep breaths whenever possible. It infuses the body with extra oxygen, benefiting the lungs, heart, brain, and all other organs — skin included. The increased oxygen levels in the brain activate chemicals that improve health and well-being, resulting in increased energy and improved mood.
While eating, particularly if alone, focus on the food you are eating — the flavors and textures. Slow down and enjoy the moment. One can also take this time to think deeper thoughts about the kind of day they are having and how it is affecting them. One should be mindful of eating slowly and stopping when they have had enough to eat. Also, examine the effects that food has on the body. Too much sugar causes a spike in blood sugar, which then drops shortly afterward and leaves people feeling exhausted. Large, rich meals could cause discomfort. Light, healthy meals should result in happiness, knowing that one is being kind to one’s body.
Where and how often should mindfulness be practiced?
As mentioned, mindfulness can be practiced almost anywhere. In fact, it is about being constantly aware, and once the habit of mindful focus has been established, practice transforms into habit. To begin with, however, a couple of quiet sessions in the privacy of a patient’s home or when leading a group meditation class would be a good way to get the hang of it.
Ideally, a 30-minute meditation session should be done at least once a day for about six months. Mindfulness needs to be done at least once a day, but it can be stretched into two to three conscious sessions or whenever you feel the need to breathe and let go.
People can practice mindfulness while driving their cars or working in the garden. Listening to music is beneficial in so many ways, as it takes the mind to faraway places and happy memories. Take note of surrounding sensations and how the body responds.
Meditation is the practice of focusing the mind on a single point of reference with a view to excluding all else around. Whether in group counseling sessions or one-on-one therapy, one is more likely to gain a deeper understanding of themselves when the surrounding noise and other distractions have been eliminated.
While mindfulness and meditation are similar in that they reduce stress and help to relax, mindfulness encourages people to become aware of their surroundings and treat themselves with compassion, whereas meditation teaches them how to exclude their surroundings and focus on their innermost feelings. Both practices require a focus on the mind, and both practices are healing.
The benefits of meditation are many, with stress relief possibly being the most important. Meditation is a natural method of relieving the stress that causes or exacerbates many of today’s modern diseases and mental issues.
Psychologists — and, by extension, counselors — have found that regular meditation sessions can prompt physical and cognitive changes in our bodies and minds. When practiced in a controlled, clinical environment, mindful meditation can help patients avoid destructive and addictive behaviors.
Here are some popular meditation-based methods in use by therapists for a more structured approach to mindfulness:
Body scan meditation: This involves the patient lying on their back with their legs and arms spread out and their eyes closed. The counselor starts with the feet and works their way up the body, encouraging the patient to assess each limb and each area of their torso, ascertain how they feel, and then move on. This method can also be used to place the body into a deeply relaxed state, as is done in conventional meditation, where one becomes unaware of one’s surroundings.
Walking meditation: While out walking, one should be aware of how their body moves, their balance, and the sensations of their movement. Notice the breathing as one speeds up and slows down. This need not be a long walk and can be repeated several times.
Sitting meditation: Sit comfortably with a straight back, preferably with legs crossed and eyes closed. Breathe deeply and notice the breath entering and leaving the body. Focus on filling the lungs and emptying them again. Notice how the body and mind relax from deep breathing and the introduction of additional oxygen.
Research and the brain
Research suggests that the practice of mindfulness does increase the density of our gray matter — our brains. In a study conducted in 2011 on a group of beginners to mindful meditation who participated in an eight-week MBSR course, anatomical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) images showed changes in density and size in various areas of the brain. Based on the different areas affected, the study suggests that participation in the MBSR course affected learning and memory processes, self-referential processing, perspective-taking taking, and emotional regulation.
Studies have also shown different morphometry (shape and dimension) of gray matter in multiple regions of the brain when comparing experienced meditators to those without experience. Although most of these regions have only been identified in one study, the hippocampus and right anterior insula have been identified in at least two of the studies. The hippocampus is involved in learning and memory processes, as well as the control of emotions. The insula is said to play an important role in awareness. Regarding the management of stress, however, the results were inconclusive, with further research being necessary.
As previously mentioned, much research has been completed, but there is still a long way to go, specifically regarding the methodology of mindfulness. There is apparently a lack of clarity in the way that mindfulness is being practiced, and there are many theories about how it should be practiced and even how long the sessions should be. Various scales of measurement have been generated, and a combination of the ancient mindfulness of the East and contemporary Western mindfulness practices complicates studies even further.
Counselors who are not rigidly following a particular method, such as MBSR, are able to adapt their mindfulness practice according to their patient’s needs. Some patients may do better with long sessions of meditation, while others do well when discussing their problems with their counselor.
An example of effective treatment is that of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) treatment, where patients were encouraged to approach their mindfulness with curiosity rather than the tendency to avoid painful experiences. This method of exposure seems to have resulted in significant improvements for patients suffering from PTSD. Methods such as this, where particular approaches are used by counselors in conjunction with the standard mindfulness meditation, can be effective by virtue of the nature of the problem and the approach.
Despite the inconclusiveness of various studies, the fact remains that the intention exists, and some meditation is better than none. Practicing mindfulness should leave one feeling happier and healthier, which is encouraging.
Mindfulness has become a popular concept today, and no matter how it is practiced, it will have beneficial effects on individuals in their everyday lives. Counselors can empower their patients by teaching them how to practice mindfulness and the best methods by which to take each day more gradually and with more awareness. In this way, people can lead more gentle and meaningful lives.
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