An Introduction to Mindfulness

Photo credit: Mitchell Joyce

What is it?

As an ancient tradition and a common feature of many religious practices, notably Buddhism, mindfulness has a vast heritage. Have you ever seen pictures of Buddha with crossed legs? Mindfulness. There are reasons why it continues to play such a significant role even today, besides religion. Recently research has confirmed its role in lowering levels of anxiety and stress, and helping battle mental health conditions with these as the source, not to mention even being useful as pain relief.

In a sentence, mindfulness is the ability to take a step back from our emotions and regain some control. “Mindfulness also allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that we experience,” says Professor Williams formerly of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, when interviewed for the NHS entry for mindfulness, “and to see how we can become entangled in that stream in ways that are not helpful.” With conditions like anxiety, it is easy to feel carried off by your thoughts into negative places in your mind, and by allowing yourself the chance to reconnect with the present moment, you can let these trails fizzle out before they cause you damage.

With the exercises given, try recording yourself reading the instructions and play them back from your phone so you don’t need to open your eyes and read as you go.

Exercise #1:

Sit in a chair or with your legs crossed. Keep your back straight and let your eyes close. Begin to become aware of your breath flowing in and out. If you feel it moving up and down rather than your belly rising and falling, try to switch to the later, so you begin to breathe deeply. Concentrate on the flow in and out for a few moments, and steadily begin to lift your awareness to your body. Start with your feet. When was the last time you paid attention to your toes? How do they feel? Do they feel warm or cold? Steadily move to your feet as a whole and ask the same questions, then up your legs and into the rest of your body. By the end of this exercise you should begin to feel connected with your body. Take a few more breaths and allow yourself to gently take the room back in.

Anxiety, Stress and Depression:

Many mental health problems take their root in anxiety and depression, and often centre on negative thinking, which begins to manifest itself in spirals. What do I mean? Imagine that you’re worrying about an exam. Your mind is filled with thoughts along the lines of ‘I can’t do this’, ‘I haven’t revised enough for this’ etc. and you begin to worry. As a response your body tenses up, and you begin to struggle sleeping. The next few days you feel weary from lack of sleep, and so you begin to stress about this, which serves to increase the physical symptoms, such as panic attacks and low moods. It feels like the problems are feeding off one another, and in a sense they are.

Mindfulness should enable you to break free from these cycles of worry and take the opportunity to catch your breath and savour the present, instead of fearing what might happen, giving yourself the chance to recover.

Exercise #2:

Like before, sit straight and close your eyes. Feel your breath flow in and out again for a few moments and take the chance to feel yourself become more aware of your body as a whole. Focus on any parts of your body that are holding any tension or stress. Feel the shape of it. Does it have a colour? How big is it? Try to feel yourself breathe into it and see if it gradually subsides. It’s ok if it doesn’t. Try not to resist it and just let it float away. Take a few more breaths and take in the rtoom once more.

Daily Practice:

Like anything else, mindfulness takes practice to get right and feel the benefits. It isn’t the cure for everything, and it’s important not to get carried away with what it can do, but it can be extremely helpful for many things, particularly mental health. There’s many more exercises and better resources than this out there, and the internet/ bookshops are full of places you can get advice from.

Try to practice on a daily basis to allow your brain to adapt with the positives of it. It takes on average 21 days to form a new habit, so persist even if you face struggles with it. Undoubtedly it won’t be plain sailing every day, but it’s worth keeping up with it and giving it a chance.

Apart from formal exercises, you can also do other things in your daily routine to go alongside. When you wake up in the morning, try to feel your awareness throughout your body, and allow yourself to rise feeling positive and in control.

With everyday activities like even walking to university, have a go at controlling your breathing and seeing if you can experience the feel of your whole body doing it, rather than zoning out.

So, in short, mindfulness can be extremely useful, and can help make your university life that little bit easier and maybe even more enjoyable. It’s quite a strange thing to get used to doing, and might feel funny or strange, particularly if your housemate catches you doing it, but it’s worth giving it a go. You never know, it could improve your life.

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