The benefits of mindfulness

Mindfulness is something that I have strived to cultivate in recent years because my experience is that it can greatly enrich your life and make every day experiences more splendid.

I had a wonderful experience of going on a walk recently in which I chose to me more mindful of my surroundings. I became captivated by little details I had not noticed before, especially various beautiful flowers of different shapes and colours. I was particularly drawn to an adult long tailed tit which appeared to be struggling with a rather fat, bright green, wriggly caterpillar in its beak that it was trying to feed to its juvenile young. Other people walking past were completely unaware of the cute little things, and I felt honoured to have experienced it.

While it might be promoted by certain practices or activities, such as meditation, it is not equivalent to or synonymous with them. It is something that you can do throughout the day at any moment. For example, you might chose to eat a meal more mindfully by paying closer to attention to the texture, taste and smell of the food or you might make a conscious decision to listen more actively to another person talking to you, devoting all your attention to them.

Put simply it is a moment-to-moment awareness of one's experience without judgment. It teaches us how to use the mind in
a different way so that we can focus on the things that are most useful and helpful in our lives. This means that we are better to live more consciously and fully.

Its origins stretch back to Buddhist practices dating back to 2,600 years ago and has become a mainstream psychotherapy construct.

There are various benefits to regularly practicing mindfulness in terms of mental and physical health and cognitive performance.

Mindfulness appears to enhance our executive functions associated with the pre-frontal cortex located at the front of the brain. Executive functions include short-term memory, processing information, knowing what to pay attention to, making decisions, prioritisation, and the regulation of emotions. By practicing mindfulness this area of the brain appears to be more stabilised and functions better. In contact, an overactive stress centre of the brain (amygdale) highjacks this area of the brain making functioning effectively difficult if not impossible.

It is widely used in the treatment of mental health disorders, for example in the form of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) developed by some prominent psychologists from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. It reduces depressive symptoms and the reactivity of the amygdala so that it is less likely to have an inappropriate fight or flight response when faced with non-life threatening events. It can also be helpful for people who experience chronic pain, help businessmen, sports people, leaders, students etcetera perform better and bring a sense of inner peace. This is due to neuroplasticity; the brain is constantly rewiring itself and this means that we are able to unwire unhelpful patterns of thought and behaviour and wire in helpful ones.

It is not about only noticing positive things and emotions; it can also be sitting with difficult emotions and noticing how they feel within the body rather than pushing unpleasant feelings away. This can mean we are better able to cope with or process the thoughts, feelings and emotions.

It is also thought to boost the immune system and has been shown to increase telomerase, the caps at the end of our genes.

If focusing on your breathing for five minutes is not something that interested you, I encourage you to cultivate mindfulness over the next seven days by picking one every day activity to complete more mindfully such as cleaning your teeth, driving, eating or washing the dishes. Let me know how you get on!


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