In the final blog of our Mental Health Awareness Week series, Elaine Sketchley, Staff Counsellor, looks at how Mindfulness can help you retain and improve your mental health.
“Mental health is a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community.” (World Health Organisation)
Mental health does not necessarily imply that we are free from mental health problems but if we are in good mental health, we are more able to:
- Make the most of our potential
- Cope with change and uncertainty in life
- Manage a range of feelings and emotions
- Play a full part in family life, employment and community
We are all susceptible to the common stresses and strains of life and many of us may, at times, feel ourselves to be ‘stressed’, ‘anxious’, and ‘depressed’. For some these feelings may become so serious and prolonged that they begin to interfere with the quality of their everyday lives.
In this context, it is useful to remind ourselves that 1 in 4 of us will experience mental ill health at some point in our lives.
With this in mind, it makes sense to understand how we can support our mental health and take preventative measures to safeguard ourselves as much as possible.
Mindfulness, although not the only effective strategy available to us, has demonstrated its effectiveness in many areas of mental ill health. This has been demonstrated in various areas of research which include depression especially, recurrent depression, anxiety, stress, eating disorders, addiction and others.
So you might be asking at this point: what is Mindfulness and how can it help us to retain and improve mental health?
Mindfulness in these terms may best be defined as……
“the practice of turning toward the experience at hand with engaged equanimity, a non-judgmental openness and trust in the ultimate workability of all experience.”
“being present, available without turning away from the pain that life at times presents.”
“With Mindfulness, you become sensitive to the actual experience of living, to how things actually feel. You do not sit around developing sublime thoughts about living. You live.” (Bhante G.)
A number of Mindful Therapies have been developed as treatment strategies for mental ill health. However, the important point is that Mindfulness Practice underpins each of these treatment approaches. As such each will enable clients to cultivate acceptance of present experience, a non-judgmental approach toward self, letting go of self-criticism and working towards allowing things to be as they are, without either becoming overwhelmed by our experience or on the other hand, resisting or fighting against what we may be experiencing.
Mindfulness fosters a ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ approach to life, promoting a non-goal attainment, no special ideal to be achieved state of mind.
Mindfulness practices concentrate on developing a greater body awareness which contrasts with our usual preoccupation with the mind. When we are stressed, depressed and anxious, this preoccupation with the mind and thought is even more exaggerated and often, there is very little felt sense of the body. When bodily awareness does exist, it is often not awareness of the body as a whole but in those parts of the body that are problematic in some way.
Ordinarily, we live our lives on autopilot without awareness of each moment. It is said that we spend 40% of our time thinking about the past, 50% about the future and only 10% experiencing the present. Mindfulness facilitates a greater capacity for being present, focused and grounded in our experience in the here and now moment. In this way, we are able to more fully experience our lives and less inclined to focus on imaginary fears and ‘what ifs’.
Greater focus on the body begins to demonstrate more clearly our propensity to overthink and shows us how the chatter of our minds tends to dictate our reactions to everyday events. Our developing awareness reveals how our minds are often busy and scattered. Learning to return to the present moment by focusing upon the breath in the body creates the possibility of becoming more focused and centred. With practice it becomes easier to gently bring ourselves back to the present moment more readily, whenever we need to and ultimately back to ourselves.
The more scattered our minds, the more we are inclined to cling to or avoid things. For example, if our experience is good, we tend to want to hold on to it and fear the loss of the thing that feels good. If it’s uncomfortable, we tend to avoid or resist it. In contrast, Mindfulness cultivates a growing ability to be present with what is and provides a place from which to view things from a wider perspective. We can then relate differently to our experience and choose our response, rather than to automatically react to our experience.
In short, developing an ‘accepting’, ‘non-judgmental’, ‘allowing it to be just as it is and letting go of the need for it to be different’ becomes a major part of caring for ourselves by creating a more nurturing and less critical, bullying relationship with ourselves. This translates into a healthier self-esteem and therefore, less likelihood of becoming mentally unwell.
If you think that you are experiencing mental ill health, please see your GP before embarking upon Mindfulness practice. Please contact the Staff Counselling Service for further information.
The references below will give a greater insight into Mindfulness and its application to mental health.
- BRANTLEY, Jeffrey – ‘Calming Your Anxious Mind’, Harbinger Publications 2007
- CHODRON, Pema – ‘When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times’, Harpers Collins, London 2005
- KABAT-ZINN, Jon – ‘Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment and Your Life’, Sounds True 2012, includes practice CD
- STAHL, Bob & GOLDSTEIN, Elisha – ‘A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook’, New Harbinger Publications 2010, includes practice CD
- WILLIAMS, Mark & PENMAN, Danny – ‘Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’, Piatkus 2011, includes practice CD
- WILLIAMS, Mark; TEASDALE, John; SEGAL, Zindel & KABAT-ZINN, Jon – ‘The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness’, The Guildford Press 2007, includes practice CD