World Mental Health Day: What is mindfulness?

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Looking up and being 'mindful' of surroundings is a key part of the process

Mindfulness is one of those words which you hear more and more of, with dozens of apps promising to help you harness the power of your mind.

But what is it, who does it help and how can you practise it?

The most simple way to explain it is to stop that feeling of your mind being "full".

Oxford University's Professor Willem Kuyken is the director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. He describes mindfulness as "a natural capacity we all have and can all develop".

"It's about greater awareness and having the greater ability to be in the present moment, without judgement, but with curiosity, kindness and care," he tells the BBC.

A lot is known about how best to keep our bodies fit, but Prof Kuyken says it's just as important to keep the mind healthy, adding: "We've made enormous progress in the past 50 years in terms of physical health, and people now live well for longer. But the next question is how people can live longer and be mentally well."

It can be used therapeutically - for example for those with chronic health problems or mental health issues - but anyone can benefit from it, says Prof Kuyken.

"Mindfulness is done through a whole range of meditative practices, all helping us become more aware and pay more attention," he explains. "It's about being responsive rather than just being on auto-pilot."

So how do we do that?

How to be more mindful

  • Notice the everyday - engage your senses, for example to think about the food you eat and the feeling of the air moving past as you walk
  • Choose a regular time for your practice, for example during your morning commute or on a lunchtime walk
  • Try seeing things from a different perspective. This can be as simple as choosing a different seat at school, college or in a work meeting, or going somewhere new for lunch
  • Watch your thoughts - see them as "mental events" and let them come and go in your mind, like buses
  • Name your thoughts and feelings to get more awareness, for example recognising "this is anxiety"
  • As well as practising in day-to-day life, you can set aside time for mindfulness meditation, yoga or tai-chi

Source: NHS

"There's nothing magical about mindfulness," he says. "It's something you can choose to do with a formal, meditative practice, where you bring attention to your breath and your body," says Prof Kuyken.

"But you can also bring it into everyday life by stopping and being present as to what is around you."

'Think like a toddler'

He adds: "If you're walking your children to school in the morning and your toddler sees a spider's web, it's about stopping, looking and really noticing it in the same way as the child does. It's a case of thinking, 'Gosh, look at that!' and really making the most of the moment instead of just hurrying on."

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Children have a natural curiosity - adults could learn a lesson or two from them

Rohan Gunatillake, creator of meditation and mindfulness app Buddhify, said: "We live in a world where so many different factors are trying to grab your attention.

"Mindfulness is about regaining control - you're learning how to direct and keep your attention on what's important, while it's happening. And from a mental health perspective, it can help with negative emotions by letting you observe your thoughts instead of being carried away by them.

"It's a strategy to stop you buying into those thoughts. Through developing mindfulness, your awareness grows.

"So many people go through the day not paying attention to what's around them. And many aren't aware how stress or anxiety works in the brain. Mindfulness helps you start to uncover that."

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Image caption,
Luckily, assuming this pose is not necessary

'It stops me getting overwhelmed'

Comedian Lorna Prichard, from Cardiff, says using a mindfulness app - as recommended by a counsellor - helped her after having a mental breakdown two years ago.

"It's made me feel a lot more on top of what my mind is doing, if it starts on a spiral into anxiety or depression. I feel better able to note and accept the emotions, but not get caught up in them," she says.

"I've learned to live in the present and notice when something is triggering negative thoughts. It seems to stop me getting to a point of overwhelm."

Lucy, from Leeds, says using an app helps her with anxiety levels, as "a big source of my anxiety was around ruminating on the past or worrying about the future".

But she added: "It can be like exercise, in that you know you'll feel better if you do it but it's all too easy to be 'too busy' to sit down for 10 minutes. Even after such a short time I feel much calmer though."

  • The Oxford English Dictionary defines mindfulness as "quality or state of being conscious or aware of something"
  • Rooted in Buddhist philosophies, where it is described as "the meditative state of being both fully aware of the moment and of being self-conscious of and attentive to this awareness; a state of intense concentration on one's own thought processes; self-awareness"
  • Mindfulness has become popular in the West in recent years as a way of combating stress, anxiety and depression - the NHS lists it as one of the five steps to mental wellbeing