- Mindfulness exercises and meditation techniques can help manage thoughts that enter our minds, whether they’re negative or otherwise.
- Mindfulness meditation techniques can have many mental health benefits. They can help you feel calmer and more focussed; improve memory; reduce stress and anxiety; and keep intrusive thoughts under control.
- Many professional organisations, from schools to the military, are increasingly recognising the benefits of mindfulness exercises.
Have you ever tried to think of nothing? That is, have you ever tried to go ‘blank’ by thinking of nothing at all?
If so, how long did it last? How long were you able to have no thoughts whatsoever before your mind inevitably thought of something?
If you’ve never done that before, then why not try the following exercise?
Sit or lie down with your eyes closed, try to think of nothing, and see how much time passes before an identifiable thought enters your mind. Most people find it impossible to go more than five or ten seconds before they have a thought about something.
You have less control over your thoughts than you think
The above exercise tells you something about human thought and behaviour. Namely, that we actually have very little control over the contents and functioning of our mind.
While we have the capacity to consciously make ourselves think certain things, like recalling facts or solving a problem, most of the time we still experience a constant flow of ‘unplanned’ thoughts that ‘pop into our minds’. This is often called mental chatter.
In fact, we have thousands of thoughts that pass through our brains every day. Most of these tend to pass or be forgotten because they’re probably mundane, everyday things, like what brand to buy in a supermarket or how to navigate traffic.
It is normal to occasionally experience thoughts that are stressful and worrying. However, for some people, those worrying thoughts may persist or feel like they “are on repeat” in their minds. This is known as rumination. Others might experience thoughts that are so intense that they interfere with concentration or may even become a panic attack.
The benefits of mindfulness exercises
A worrying or stressful thought that you dwell over and is left to ‘grow’ can go from being just that — a thought — to something that changes behaviour.
Here are some common examples:
- Worrying thoughts about money could lead to thoughts that interfere with sleep. The subsequent sleep deprivation could affect your mood the next morning and even your ability to drive.
- Frustration with something may turn to annoyance, anger and a bad mood. This could become an outburst or other behaviour that strains a relationship.
- Anxiety about an impending event might lead to what are often called unhealthy coping mechanisms. Examples include binge eating, smoking, gambling, coffee consumption or drug use.
This is where mindfulness exercises and meditation techniques can help. Its purpose is to help manage the mental chatter and negative thoughts that enter our minds.
Importantly, and unlike some form of meditation, mindfulness does not seek to suppress or ‘cancel out’ those thoughts. Rather, mindfulness is about controlling how you respond to those thoughts.
This is because mindfulness acknowledges that we cannot control the fact that thoughts — negative or otherwise — constantly enter our minds. Instead, mindfulness techniques seek to control how we feel and respond to those thoughts.
Mindfulness is increasingly being recognised for its mental health and wellbeing benefits. Among its practitioners are schools, workplaces, government departments, elite athletes and even the armed forces.
Different forms of mindfulness
People who practise mindfulness often report improvements in their wellbeing.
Commonly reported benefits of mindfulness include:
- Improved calmness and reduced impulsiveness.
- Improve memory, attention and concentration.
- Help with rumination — those constant, wandering, repetitive thoughts, often of a negative nature.
- Reduced feelings of stress and anxiety.
There are many mindfulness activities that use different techniques. Here are some of the most common ways of practising mindfulness.
Breathing is a unique biological function that can be both voluntary and involuntary. You can control breathing by thinking about it, but it also happens when you’re not thinking about it. Focussing on breathing, taking deep breaths and holding for a short time, and exhaling, are all fundamental aspects of mindful meditation.
Often performed while resting with your eyes closed, this technique seeks to calm the mind. This is done by focussing on your breathing or by noticing sensations in your body (it could even be the subtle feeling of wearing a sock).
With this technique you focus on breathing or sensations, while accepting that thoughts will enter your mind. You specifically acknowledge that thoughts do occur and let them pass so that you can re-focus on the sensory experience.
“Body scan” or progressive relaxation
The “body scan” technique involves focusing on parts of the body that feel tense. Try to notice the tension and progressively allow it relax. The technique usually starts with one end of the body, such as a hand or foot, and ends at the opposite end.
Focussing on an object
Object-focused meditation involves focussing your attention on an object or even a sound. Much like body scan or focussing on breathing, the intention is to achieve a more tranquil state by focussing on something external. One well-known technique even involves slowly and mindfully tasting a raisin.
Is mindfulness for everyone?
These are just a few of the many techniques that form part of mindful meditation and relaxation. Indeed, mindfulness isn’t limited to lying still. Other mindfulness activities and techniques include walking meditation and even mindfulness in everyday life by washing the dishes (whereby you focus on the sensation of the water and the texture of the dishwashing cloth).
Mindfulness can be done ‘internally’ with your ‘head voice’ or it can be guided via a recording, app, or live instructor.
As mentioned, mindfulness relaxation is becoming more widespread. However, mindfulness therapy may not be for everyone. For instance, vulnerable people with acute mental health conditions should see their GP or a mental health professional before seriously considering mindfulness therapy.
Nonetheless, meditation and mindfulness remain effective ways to help deal with anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Mindfulness is accessible. It’s affordable in that you need little more than a quiet space. And best of all — it’s easy. You could even try mindfulness at work if you wanted to.
Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Want to know where else you can get help? Find out how to access additional community support.
The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.