Did you know that mindfulness can be helpful for your mental health including those with mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety?
You have probably seen and heard the term ‘mindfulness’ across your Facebook page, in the news, and as a hot topic with your yogi friends.
Our guest blogger, Melissa, takes a look at 10 top benefits of mindfulness for mental health, and also some simple techniques to try yourself!
Mindfulness is a form of meditation – it’s about focusing your mind’s attention on the present rather than letting it drift into concerns about the past or future.
The goal is not to make your mind empty, but to let the thoughts come and go without getting caught up and obsessing over any particular one.
Mindfulness won’t get rid of the things that cause stress in your life. But, it allows you to observe a situation as if from a distance without strong emotions clouding your view.
There are only two steps to mindfulness:
Sounds simple? If you give it a go, you may realise it’s not as simple as it sounds. But while it might take some practice – it can definitely be worth it!
Daily life can be stressful – but mindfulness can help you be less vulnerable to stress and have greater emotional resilience. To put it more simply, it can help you ‘roll with the punches’ and adapt to stressful situations. Some people have said that it almost gives them a ‘mental armour’ in highly stressful situations.
Stress is not just emotional, it can be physical as well. Mindfulness can help lower your breathe rate, heart rate and blood pressure, and also lower levels of stress hormones in your body.
Many people don’t realise but pain and depression (and other mental illnesses) can be very closely related – in fact, pain can cause depression and depression can cause pain. For people with chronic or acute pain, studies have shown that mindfulness can help reduce their pain.
While everyone feels angry from time to time which is a healthy and normal emotion, some people can find their anger hard to manage. For those who do have difficulty with anger, mindfulness can help them manage these feelings.
Many people have niggling thoughts – ‘I’m not good enough!’, ‘I’m stupid!’ Mindfulness helps you question these thoughts – ‘Is it true?’, ‘Is it helpful?’. When you are mindful of your thoughts and feelings, you can start to trust what your brain and body really need and start valuing how amazing you are! We are all perfectly imperfect!
Some people with mental illnesses can experience memory loss or difficultly focusing. Practicing mindfulness has been shown to both improve a person’s memory and their attention.
Fatigue (or exhaustion) is very common for people who have a mental illness such as depression. For those who experience insomnia, mindfulness can help combat this or improve the quality of a person’s sleep.
Although it may actually sound far-fetched, studies have shown that mindfulness can actually bring about changes in the areas of the brain which are associated with positive mood and regulation of emotions.
One recent study showed that mindfulness based cognitive therapy (which combines mindfulness with traditional cognitive-behavioural therapy) was just as effective at preventing recurrence of depression as anti-depressants were – even for those with a high risk of relapse. While these results are promising, many people benefit from anti-depressants and no one should stop taking medications without talking to their health professional.
We all worry about the future or have regrets about the past, but mindfulness can mean you worry less about these. It can help you to tell apart thoughts which are helpful (those which can help you problem solve), and a nagging worry (that provides no benefit by focusing on it).
There are lots of different mindfulness exercises – and which one you pick is up to you! But here are just 4 exercises you can give a go.
Remember that mindfulness takes practice – and it’s not always easy for everyone to master! But don’t give up and remember to be kind and gentle with yourself.
One great mindfulness exercise you might like to try, is all about breathing.
Find somewhere comfortable to sit with your feet flat on the floor, your back supported, shoulders relaxed, and arms resting in your lap. Close your eyes or soften your gaze.
As you breathe in, say the number 50 in your head; as you breathe out say the number 49. Continue to count backwards from 50 – breathing in on the even numbers and breathing out on the uneven numbers.
If you lose count or get distracted by a thought – don’t worry, just return to 50 and start again. If you get to 0 (well done!), also return to 50 and start again.
Do this for 5 – 10 minutes.
A guided meditation is when a narrator talks you through a series of steps or instructions – this may be focusing on your breath, or sensations in your body, or visualising an environment.
They can be done in person with a therapist, in a group, or in your own home by listening to a recorded track.
If you wanted to give this a go, there are some great online apps available – just download one on your phone or computer, press play, sit comfortably, and follow the instructions given.
Headspace is a popular one which offers 10 free sessions for you to trial. Another online resource comes from Dr Ronald Siegal – assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical school – which you can download at Mindfulness Solution.
It might sound strange, but you can actually practice mindfulness by spending time doing an everyday task such as digging in the garden or folding the washing.
To do this, get rid of the distractions around you such as the TV or radio – and concentrate fully on your task.
While you do it, take note of the sensations, the textures, the colours, and the sounds around you.
Maybe your clean washing smells fresh, or the dirt from the garden is cool in your hands, or maybe you can hear birds outside.
Allow yourself to get absorbed in the task you are doing.
Every time you get distracted by a thought, just turn your attention back to those sensations, sounds, or smells around you.
This exercise is great for mindfulness, but, it also helps you get active!
Get out of the house and go for a walk – but if you can, leave your phone, music, or any other distractions at home.
Concentrate on what you can see, hear, and smell. Notice the sensations in your body such as your foot hitting the ground or the breeze on your skin.
If a thought does creep into your head, just return your attention back to what’s going on around you or those sensations in your body.
After reading this you might be ready to start a mindfulness practice today and that’s great news! But it’s important to know that mindfulness is not for everyone.
If you have a severe mental illness, please talk to a health professional before starting a mindfulness program to see if it is right for you. Also, if any of these exercises worsen your symptoms, please consult your health professional before continuing.
It may be that mindfulness is not the right treatment for you at this stage or perhaps, such as for some people with PTSD, it is best done with a health professional guiding you and helping you with any emotions or concerns.
If you need to talk to someone about mental illness or a crisis in your life, please consider calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
Melissa Saville, is a Physiotherapist, mindfulness coach, and a Pilates and Yoga teacher. She has Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and practices mindfulness daily to help manage her fatigue and major depression.