As May is ‘Mental Health Awareness Month’, in today’s blogpost, I wanted to take the opportunity to write about the benefits of mindfulness.
Most people have associated the words ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’ with spiritual practices that require a lot of wisdom and experience. But over the past year, I’ve learnt that you don’t need to locate your third eye or learn Sanskrit to practice mindfulness; you just need to pay very close attention.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is defined as the process of observing your thoughts in a neutral, nonreactive way. This aspect of mindfulness took me the longest to grasp. The idea of noticing my thoughts in a nonjudgmental, neutral way seemed counterintuitive.
After watching ‘The Mind: Explained’ series on Netflix I learnt how our mind is kind of like a Google Chrome browser and our thoughts are tabs that are open. Everyday, all of us have constant thoughts running through our head, kind of like having endless tabs open on an internet browser. Eventually, when it gets too crowded, we can start to panic or not make the right decisions. Mindfulness helps to reduce the unnecessary thoughts and focus on what really matters in our day to day lives.
Many researchers suggest that the human brain is actually designed to practice mindfulness, which is why every spiritual tradition in the world has some form of mindfulness at its core. Mindfulness has surged in popularity in recent years, due to the increased accessibility of apps such as Calm or Headspace. The practice has an incredibly long history, dating back thousands of years. Many religions—including Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—practice some form of mindfulness.
The brain-changing effects of mindfulness
Our brains are highly plastic, which means that neurons can restructure with different experiences, (note that mindfulness is one of those experiences). Mindfulness can change the actual structure of the brain, especially the parts associated with emotions, memory, and motivation.
With increased mindfulness:
. The hippocampus—which helps regulate emotional responses—gets larger and more active.
. The function of the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that plays a role in motivation and attention, improves.
. Stress and stress-induced physical conditions can reduce by over 70% with long-term consistent practices of mindfulness, such as meditation.
. Immunity is boosted
. Quality of sleep improves
. Personal goals have a higher chance of being achieved.
How to be mindful
Practicing mindfulness is a way to develop mental fitness. Just as you can lift weights to build muscle strength, you can also exercise certain brain networks associated with core cognitive functions (like attention, logic, and memory) and emotion regulation (like quelling anxiety or negative reactions).
Here are the 4 main ways you can practice mindfulness sin your day-to-day life:
1. Meditate! All you need is 10-15 minutes of your day where you close and eyes and focus on your breath. There are many apps such as Headspace and free videos on YouTube that guide you through breathing meditation. Mindfulness and meditation go hand in hand. If mindfulness focuses on something, meditation generally focuses on nothing—trying to quiet the mind down to no thoughts
2. Going for a walk: Going for a walk in your local park can help you connect with nature and observe your thoughts. When I feel overwhelmed, I like to take walks in Richmond Park and appreciate the nature around me. It reminds me that there is a world outside of my negative thoughts. It helps to refresh and reset my mind, ready to take on the rest of the day. You can practice mindfulness on your daily walks by noticing the thoughts that pop up in your head, acknowledge them, and then let them go.
3.Eating a meal: Although this may sound bizarre, mealtimes are a part of the day to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness allows us to slow down long enough to help savor the experience of eating (think: taste, smells, and sounds). It’s also a great time to reflect on all of the people and processes that brought this meal to your table—from the farm workers to the truck drivers to the person who stocked the ingredients you used to prepare what you're eating at the supermarket.
I hope this week’s blogpost helped you learn something new! Happy Mental Health Awareness Month :)
- Chandni Shekhawat