In the following article, Lisa Chiang, one of the dedicated Counsellors in the Student Counselling and Wellbeing team at Griffith University shares some useful strategies to help you focus, unwind and improve your state of mind.
Nowadays, being busy is a badge that we wear with honour, highlighting to ourselves and others that we are productive and worthwhile. So often we rush around each day completing our to-do lists, planning and thinking about what we need to do, worrying about the future or regretting the past, that we forget to take a moment to be in the present. But, why is it so important to be in the present?
Being in the present is at the core of mindfulness. Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn who founded the work on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and who is known for bringing mindfulness into the current spotlight defines mindfulness as “The awareness that arises from paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
One of the formal practices of mindfulness is meditation. Think of it like exercise, the more we exercise, the bigger the muscle grows and when we are not exercising the bigger muscle burns more energy. In the same way when we meditate, we are more able to be in the present moment when we are not meditating.
The benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness and meditation have been shown to have proven benefits to health, quality of life and wellbeing.
- Improve your sleep: When we go to bed, that’s when our mind seems to want to remind us of all the worries of the day, future tasks we have yet to accomplish, deadlines approaching and rehashing social events of the day. Mindfulness can help reduce these bedtime thought processes through slowing breathing, metacognitive awareness and support the maintenance of good sleep.
- Enhance your working memory: Mindfulness stems against the losses in memory capacity, enhances working memory, improves positive affect and reduces negative affect. Mindfulness literally changes the structure of your brain by increasing the cortical thickness of your hippocampus and which is involved in learning and memory and reduces the size of amygdala which is responsible for anxiety, stress and the fear response.
- Reduce your stress and anxiety: There are many studies touting the benefits of mindfulness in reducing stress and anxiety and is often the reason people seek out mindfulness strategies. Mindfulness changes the relationship we have with stress-inducing situations by allowing us to become aware of our emotions and thought processes.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”Viktor E. Frankl
- Reduce your emotional reactivity: In meditation practice with the development of metacognitive awareness the practitioner begins to see that space, that moment between the stimulus and response and the choice to choose our reaction. This paradigm shift in thinking along with the practice of accepting and observing emotions as they arise promotes self-regulation.
- Improve your attention: Meditation increases activation in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), the part of the brain which is involved in executive function and attention. Improved attention reduces being distracted by noticing when the focus on a task has gone astray, allowing it to be brought back to the task at hand.
- Manage your physical pain: Long-term practitioners of meditation showed reduced activation in the medial pre-frontal cortex (mPFC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), brain areas associated with pain. Even with novice meditators using brief mindfulness practices there has been a reduction in the experience of pain associated with greater thalamic deactivation.
- Build and strengthen your relationships: Mindfulness has a positive impact on interpersonal relationships by allowing us to stay more in the present moment with an attitude of curiosity and a non-judgemental approach towards anything that arises instead of old patterns of ego and blame.
- Increase your compassion: It certainly does feel sometimes that our world lacks compassion and empathy, and it’s not just to others but to ourselves. This benefit of mindfulness although not the one often highlighted might be the most important one of all. If we showed more kindness and compassion first to ourselves and then to others, imagine how different the news would look like and how different we would feel scrolling through social media.
Short meditations work
No time to meditate? I struggled with that too. Just start by giving yourself a few minutes. Research has shown that even brief mindfulness meditations have the above benefits.
The Griffith Health and Wellness team has created a series of Meaningful Minute videos, which are around 3 minutes long to support you in beginning a daily practice of mindfulness, and to simply pause and take that moment to reflect.
Find one that resonates with you, try out the different ones, or you can just take a moment to connect with your breathe. Try it at different times of the day to find what is effective for you. We create these weekly and you can view them on this playlist.