MINDFULNESS — REDUCING STRESS
We all know what it is like to feel stressed. To get out of bed and worry about the day ahead, allowing self-critical and unhelpful thoughts to rattle around inside our heads. Too much stress can lead to comfort eating, depression and insomnia. Saying, “Pull yourself together” rarely works. But you can counter these negative thoughts by making yourself more “mindful”. Instead of obsessing, take time out to look at yourself and your thoughts in a less judgemental, more reasonable way.
Mindfulness is a modern take on the ancient practice of meditation. The good news is you don’t need to be religious or go on a retreat to a Tibetan monastery to do it. You can buy books about mindfulness, but it’s not really something you need to read about; it’s something you need to do. I recommend joining a group or downloading an app that will guide you through the process.
The app sessions are short — at first it’s just 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, and finally 20 minutes, so it’s not a particularly time-consuming thing to do. You may be cynical, but it really is worth trying. I find it reduces cravings and helps me sleep better.
When I’m doing a mindfulness session, I sit in a comfortable chair, turn on my app, rest my hands on my thighs and close my eyes. Then, guided by the app, I spend the next few minutes trying to focus on my breath. I pay attention to the sensation of the breath going through my nostrils, filling my chest, expanding and contracting my diaphragm. I try to stay focused on this task and when I notice that my thoughts have drifted, which they do, I bring them back to my breath.
I try to treat thoughts like balloons that drift into my consciousness; once I have noticed they are there, I simply allow them to drift way. I say “simply”, but when you first start, you will find it’s almost impossible to stop thinking about deadlines, food, the overdraft, the kids, your ex-partner, etc... You might start thinking, “This isn’t working, what is Michael Mosley on about?” Put those suspicious thoughts aside; it will get easier.
Like any skill, practice makes perfect. Mindfulness can be very effective in a surprisingly short time. In a recent study, researchers took 15 volunteers who had never tried anything like mindfulness and put them through a brain scanner. They also got them to fill in an anxiety questionnaire.
The volunteers then did four sessions of mindfulness training, spread over four days, and the tests were repeated. Anxiety ratings fell by 39pc. The results also showed that activity also increased in the areas of the brain that control worrying, particularly the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus. This supports the claim that mindfulness strengthens our ability to ignore negative thoughts and feelings.