By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This is Episode 42 and this week I’m talking about mindfulness – I’ll be discussing what it is, why it’s good for your mental health, and how to be more mindful every day. Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article/transcript version. Let’s talk!
FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
- Sometimes we go into auto-pilot mode, especially for things we do on a regular basis, and that can be helpful but it also takes us away from being fully present in the moment and less conscious of what’s happening in the moment.
- ‘Mindfulness’ means being fully present in the current moment. That means being completely in the moment and free of distractions, and fully engaging with whatever you’re doing or focusing on.
- Being more mindful serves to change how you experience your thoughts and feelings; instead of just reacting when you have a thought or a feeling, learning how to live more mindfully helps you to hit the pause button so that you can respond in a more considered way to your thoughts and feelings.
- Mindfulness has been demonstrated to have a positive effect on your mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, and its benefits continue to be explored by researchers.
- There are many different ways to be mindful, and you don’t even need very long to incorporate a little mindfulness practice into your day; find a tool (such as an app, a podcast, a YouTube video, etc.) that works for you and get started. Even a couple of minutes every day can make a positive difference over time.
Mindfulness is something that comes up a lot in this podcast as well as in many different things you’ll read or hear about improving your mental health, however I think sometimes it can be seen as being too new-agey or just too time-consuming for some people, however the good news is that you don’t need to sell all of your belongings and move to a commune to be more mindful (unless that’s what you want to do!), and you can practice mindfulness in less than a minute — which I will demonstrate a little later on in this episode.
Before we get into that, I’ve mentioned a few times in past episodes about how things often seem to happen in my personal life that are related to the topics that I’m writing about for this program. Whether that’s destiny lining up or simply the Universe making sure that I really think about the topic, the result is the same: I often wind up experiencing a lot of these subjects in ways that serve to reinforce why it was an important topic to talk about in the first place.
That happened again this week — on the very day I started pulling research and drafting up the episode content to talk about mindfulness, my tyre blew out as I was driving to pick up my partner and I found myself waiting an hour on a country road for roadside assistance to come and sort me out. As I waited, I realised just how calm I had been throughout the whole thing — I was driving at high speed on a country road but instead of panicking and letting my anxiety take over, I went into problem-solving mode and then calmly sat and waited (it certainly didn’t hurt that I had a beautiful view across rolling hills as the sun was beginning to slowly set to keep me company!). This is a spot I rarely get to enjoy as I’m driving through it, so finding myself with an opportunity to sit quietly and just mindfully appreciate the beauty of the place I call home now was both calming and invigorating.
I think we get so hung up on completing our to-do list and getting through the day, and often it’s not until we’re forced to take a moment to just sit that we even consider the idea of slowing down and taking a look at our surroundings. As I sat there watching the sunset, I found myself thinking about how fortunate I was to be able to just be present and to experience the quiet beauty of that moment. And so that’s what I’ll be talking about this week — how mindfulness can help you stay in the present moment and how that helps your mental health and wellbeing.
What is mindfulness?
Have you ever found yourself sitting on the couch eating a snack and suddenly you realise you’ve eaten it all, but had no idea you were nearly finished? Or have you been driving your car or catching public transport and suddenly you’ve arrived at your destination, but didn’t fully realise it until you got there? Sometimes we go into auto-pilot mode, especially for things we do on a regular basis, and that can be helpful but it also takes us away from being fully present in the moment. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of being on the train as we head to work and completely zoning out, or watching television and suddenly the program finishes before we even know it… sometimes we can find ourselves defaulting to just following our instincts and while that can be useful for a lot of activities, it can also mean that we’re less conscious of what’s happening in the moment — especially the so-called little things, like a nice view or a pleasant aroma from a flower. Stopping to consciously observe these sorts of things is one way to be more mindful of your surroundings and, more importantly, to connect more with the present moment.
To break it down to its most fundamental definition, ‘mindfulness’ means being fully present in the current moment. That means being completely in the moment and free of distractions, and fully engaging with whatever you’re doing or focusing on.
You’ve probably heard me talk about the importance of living in the present in previous episodes (because the past has passed and cannot be changed, and the future is unwritten and not completely within our control) — mindfulness helps you to focus more fully on the present so that you can release your worries about the future or let go of negative thoughts you might have about past events. More and more attention has been paid to mindfulness over the past few years, and even the American Psychological Association acknowledges its benefits for mental health since it can be backed up by factual, verifiable evidence (source: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner).
Being more mindful serves to change how you experience your thoughts and feelings; instead of just reacting when you have a thought or a feeling, learning how to live more mindfully helps you to hit the pause button so that you can respond in a more considered way to your thoughts and feelings. It doesn’t mean you don’t have thoughts or feelings at all (good luck trying to make your brain go completely quiet for more than a few moments!); what it does involve is observing your thoughts and feelings without judgement and without allowing yourself to be controlled by them.
Mindfulness isn’t about religion; it can certainly be part of your spiritual practice if you like but it doesn’t have to be. It’s just a simple idea that can be used by everyone to focus more on the present moment as a means of anchoring you and helping you to find a greater sense of calm. I talk a lot in this program about being gentler with yourself (such as in Episode 9: Self-Talk and Episode 28: Feelings), and mindfulness allows you to find new ways to treat yourself gently and kindly whilst also providing you with tools to deal with challenges, and helping you with things like letting go (Episode 32) and over-thinking (Episode 4). It does this by being an anchor for the present, so that you can focus on the now and let go of worries about the past and the future.
Mindfulness can be as simple or as complicated as you like. You can do what feels right to you: that might mean doing courses or going to retreats, it might mean using apps or a podcast for guided self-paced practices, or you can even find simple moments of mindfulness in the mundane — like consciously watching the clouds pass across the sky or listening to the wind rustle through the trees for a few minutes.
Why is mindfulness good for your mental health and wellbeing?
According to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation:
“Practising mindfulness can give more insight into emotions, boost attention and concentration, and improve relationships. It is recommended by [the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] as a preventative practice for people with experience of recurrent depression.”
SANE Australia also noted that:
“Mindfulness can help reduce stress, boost creativity, [and] improve working-memory… [it can also] help manage depression, anxiety, chronic pain, suicidal ideation, addiction recovery and relapse prevention and eating disorders.”
They also noted that:
“The benefits of mindfulness meditation have been talked about for centuries, but recently neuroscientists have found evidence that mindfulness meditation helps to:
- preserve the brain’s grey matter — the thinking part of your brain
- grow the parts of the brain associated with learning, thinking, emotional regulation, empathy, compassion and taking perspective
- reduce fear, anxiety and stress [and]
- improve attention, concentration and memory.”
According to the American Psychological Association, research has identified many benefits of mindfulness including:
- reduced rumination (particularly helpful if you’re prone to over-thinking)
- stress reduction
- boosting working memory
- greater focus
- less emotional reactivity
- increased cognitive flexibility (helping you find new ways of looking at things)
- increased relationship satisfaction
- other benefits including enhanced self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation, increased immune functioning, improvement to well-being, reduction in psychological distress, increases in the speed your brain processes information as well as making it easier to complete tasks along with having fewer thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand.
- Mental Health Foundation (UK): https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/m/mindfulness
- SANE Australia: https://www.sane.org/information-stories/facts-and-guides/mindfulness
- American Psychological Association: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner
Those points are summarised from the article I mentioned earlier and the link is in the transcript (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner); if you’re after more information I’d definitely recommend that one because it provides a bit more detail for each item I just mentioned as well as providing details of the research cited for each item (so if you’re anything like me and you want to be sure you’re using reputable sources based on the scientific method, you can very easily go down a rabbit-hole of reading multiple papers about the evidence to support the idea of mindfulness. I’ll post the link to Facebook as well (facebook.com/ltamentalhealth) because it’s a worthwhile article.
In short, mindfulness helps you to focus more fully on the present moment and that can have positive flow-on effects to your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. And so with that in mind, let’s talk about the how-to part of this week’s topic.
How to be more mindful no matter how much (or how little) time you have available
There are many different ways to be mindful, and you don’t even need very long to incorporate a little mindfulness practice into your day (which I’ll demonstrate in just a moment!). First, let me just point out that there are thousands of different books, podcasts, YouTube videos, audio files and articles out there that are designed to help you discover different mindfulness practices that work for you. Also there are apps like Smiling Mind and Headspace that offer guided exercises and meditation practices (although note that some do require a recurring subscription or one-off payment). It’s all a matter of choice and finding what feels right for you — so take the time to do some research and identify your preferred style and platform (some people like video, some people like audio, some people like reading while others prefer to go to a class — there’s no right or wrong way to approach it; just find what fits for you).
Today I’m going to use the how-to part of the episode to share three different mindfulness techniques that are short, sharp and simple. You’ll be able to find the written versions of these in the transcript at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes OR letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/mindfulness, and I will also post a video version of two of these on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel — just search for the channel on YouTube (click here to go to the channel) or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/links where you’ll find it listed (and while you’re at it, please subscribe to the LTAMH YouTube channel because I’m going to be adding a lot more extra content there over the next few weeks and months).
Let’s start with a simple mindfulness technique that takes almost no time at all: hitting the ‘pause button’ in your mind for 30 seconds and observing the moment mindfully, which can be especially helpful when you’re in a situation where you might be feeling a bit tense or stressed (such as being stuck on the side of the road with a busted tyre, or sitting through yet another boring meeting that could have been handled in five minutes by email…).
Begin by pausing and close your eyes if it’s safe to do so, then gently slow your breathing down, and focus on inhaling and exhaling… breathe in and breathe out… breathe in and breathe out. Now slowly open your eyes and your ‘moment of pause’ is finished.
How did that feel? That was a very quick technique taking roughly 30 seconds — it’s not fancy and it’s very simple, and yet it’s one that you can use pretty much anywhere and anytime (just make sure that if you’re driving a vehicle that you keep your eyes open and stay focused on the road — to be honest, it’s probably better to pull over for that so you can give it your full attention).
You can go one step further and mindfully notice everything that you see, hear and feel while you’re eating, walking, riding public transport, brushing your teeth… whatever feels right to you and for whatever amount of time – 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 or 10 minutes; it can be as short or as long as you like. Having multiple short bursts of mindfulness throughout the day can be really helpful, especially if you’re like me and have trouble sitting still for too long — over time, it’s worthwhile increasing how long you spend in mindfulness practice (because that helps to tame the voice inside your head that can often yammer away demanding your attention — some Buddhists call it the ‘monkey mind’ because it can be like a drunken monkey bouncing around in your head and screeching for attention… there’s a good little article on HuffPost from 2011 about that, which I’ll link to in the transcript (find it here: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/buddha-how-to-tame-your-m_b_945793).
Tuning in to all five of your senses — sight, sound, smell, taste and touch — in a conscious and considered way can be another simple way of grounding yourself mindfully. SANE Australia published this simple five-senses mindfulness starter activity:
- Focus on what your senses say to you. What can you see, hear, taste, touch and smell? Don’t analyse or think about it much, just notice what you’re sensing.
- If your attention wanders, that’s okay. Noticing is part of mindfulness. Gently bring your mind back to your senses.
- Thoughts and feelings will come and go while you’re being mindful. Let them. They’re just thoughts. Keep your awareness on your senses, anchoring you in the present moment while everything else drifts harmlessly by.
- Now focus your attention on your breath. Feel the air go in and then go out, noticing the pauses in between. Try not to control or change your breath: instead allow the air to come and go.
- Try this for a couple of minutes or so at first. It’s normal to feel distracted and find it hard, but that can change quickly with practice.
Expanding on the idea of using your five senses to be more mindful, I’m going to spend a few minutes taking you through an exercise to do just that. This will run for about five minutes and before I start there are a couple of things I want to mention:
- If you don’t have a few minutes to spare your full concentration at the moment, jump ahead by five minutes and come back to this later (you can also find the exercise on the LTAMH YouTube channel)
- If you’re driving or walking in public, put your safety first: pull over or sit down if you can. Please do not operate a vehicle or put yourself in a vulnerable position such as walking into traffic. If you can’t do this now, come back to it at a later time when you are able to give it your full attention.
- Ideally, make sure you’re somewhere that you won’t be disturbed for a few moments — and if you can be outside or at least have a view of the outdoors, you may find that particularly helpful.
What are you doing right now, at this very moment, besides listening to this? Stop everything that you’re doing, and if it is safe to do so then close your eyes and take a few minutes with me to focus on the present.
Take a deep, slow breath in… hold it for a moment… then gently exhale. Deep breath in, hold it, and exhale. Keep doing that as you listen to my words. If thoughts or feelings rise to the surface, notice them and gently let them go. If you feel judgement over any of your thoughts or feelings, notice that and let it go.
Be aware of the temperature where you are; notice the heat or the cold, notice how dry or humid the air is, notice how the air feels on your skin. Feel the temperature in your body and notice how it feels in your feet… in your legs… in your torso… in your hands… in your arms… in your head.
Turn your focus to your sense of smell, and notice any fragrances you’re aware of. Experience them.
Tune into your tongue, and noticed any lingering taste in your mouth.
Now tune into your ears, and notice any sound you can hear. Identify whether the sound is close or far away. If there is more than one sound, pick one and focus on it. Notice it and hear it fully.
Now, slowly and gently open your eyes and look around you. What do you see? Pick one item and focus on it completely, and really notice it. Look at its shape, its size, its colour, and see the item in all of its detail. See how the light plays on it and highlights different aspects. Gently begin to look at the broader place that the item sits, and see how it sits within its surroundings. Notice how the item is just one part of a much bigger picture, just like all of us.
Keep your eyes open and be part of that bigger picture for just a moment. Take a deep, slow breath in, hold it for a moment, then gently exhale. Deep breath in, hold it, and exhale. Gently allow yourself to let go of this moment of mindfulness and to recognise how it has helped you to take a few minutes to anchor yourself in the present, and then you can slowly return your focus to what you were doing before and to the rest of this podcast…
OK, so how was that? If you found your attention wandering that’s perfectly fine — it can take practice to be able to fully focus for five minutes, so keep trying and eventually you’ll find you’re able to concentrate for longer and longer each time (or you can start with a shorter practice, like the ‘pause button’ one I shared earlier, and build up the amount of time over a few days or weeks). Whatever you choose to do, it’s about finding what feels right to you and what helps you to take a moment to connect with the present.
Summary and Close-Out
When it comes to mindfulness and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: we’re often distracted by worries about the future or thoughts of the past, but the only moment that truly exists is this one, here and now. You live in the present, and so being more mindful helps you to really live in the present. Mindfulness can help to anchor you in the present moment and to be more connected with life, and it can help you to focus more on what really matters. Life is a collection of little moments that add up to big things over time, and if we don’t stop to notice the little things then we’re missing out. Rather than always letting your mind be full, let go and allow yourself to become more mindful instead.
That’s nearly it for this week. Each week I like to share a quote about this week’s topic and encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, and it is:
“Look past your thoughts, so you may drink the pure nectar of this moment.”Rumi
Next week I’ll be talking about self-esteem. I’ll be discussing what self-esteem is, why it matters, and how to improve your overall self-esteem and confidence for the sake of your mental health.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK, Ireland & Europe, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada.
You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here).
If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice and tell someone you know about the show (because word of mouth really helps new people to discover the program).
Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.