What is Mindfulness? And What it is Not
Mindfulness is a tool that has become exceedingly popular recently. Only a few years ago the general public would not be familiar with the term, whereas today it’s something we hear about all the time in a range of different contexts.
In some ways this is a good thing: mindfulness is a great tool to be aware of and it can be used to greatly improve your concentration, awareness and happiness. But at the same time, it’s also a bad thing: because it has been misappropriated in many instances and many people don’t actually really understand what it means anymore.
With that in mind, let’s take an in-depth look at what mindfulness is and what it isn’t – and how you can start using it to improve your life.
Mindfulness is often used to describe a type of meditation. Specifically, ‘mindfulness meditation’ is a type of meditation that involves reflecting on the contents of your own mind and how they might be affecting you.
Whereas the point of some forms of meditation – such as transcendental meditation – is to completely ‘empty’ your mind, the point of mindfulness is instead to simply detach yourself from your thoughts and become an observer.
This way, you can prevent them from affecting you in the same way and you can also gain a greater understanding of the contents of your own thoughts.
Often this is described as ‘watching the thoughts go past like clouds’.
The idea is not to engage with them or let them affect you but simply to observe them and to later reflect on how they might impact on your happiness.
By doing this, mindfulness allows us to take some time out of our stressful day to remove ourselves from our thoughts and thereby get some rest and relaxation.
But it’s not really just about meditation.
What mindfulness also means is being constantly aware of your own thoughts as you go throughout your day.
Some people will tell you to be ‘mindful’ of your body, or ‘mindful’ of your environment. But really what you should be focusing on is just what you’re mindful of.
Next time you go out for a nice walk with family, or next time you do something else that you should be enjoying, just make a note of whether you’re really focused on what you’re doing and whether you’re actively engaging in it… or is your mind elsewhere?
Are you actually worrying about work? Or stressing about other things?
Mindfulness teaches us to be more aware of our thoughts as that way, we can decide that we’re not going to let them affect us and because that way we can then make the conscious effort to refocus and to decide to be happy.
Mindfulness is not mysticism or linked to religion and it’s not a cure-all therapeutic technique.
All this is a tool and better yet, a state of mind. With practice, you can learn to be more in-tune with your own thoughts and that can change everything.
How to Use Mindfulness to be Happier
Mindfulness can mean a great many things depending on who you ask. Essentially this is a tool and like any tool, it can be used in numerous different ways.
Specifically, mindfulness can be used to change what we focus on and to change the way we think.
Too often we don’t pay attention to what’s going on inside our mind and that makes us victims of our emotions.
We can be in a beautiful place doing fun things with friends, only to find ourselves thinking about work and getting stressed – not actually enjoying the situation we’re in.
Likewise, we can have everything we could possibly want in life and not be happier. And it all comes down to what we choose to focus on.
This is why you can use mindfulness, among other things, as a brilliant tool for making yourself happier and more at ease with your life.
Sometimes this is referred to as a ‘gratitude attitude’. All that effectively means, is that you’re putting yourself in a state of mind where you’re focusing on the things you’re grateful for and you’re happy for. And one very easy way to do that is simply to take a time out at the end of each day to write down those things and to think about them.
Try and end every day by writing three things that you’re thankful for and reflecting on them. Where possible, try to make these different things each day and avoid repetition.
Sometimes these will be obvious things: like your health, like the people you love and like the fact that you have access to food. Focusing on the people you love in particular is a great way to be more grateful to people and this can end up actually improving your relationship with them.
But at the same time, you’re also going to think about those smaller silly things. Maybe you’re grateful for the delicious cereal you’ll have tomorrow? Maybe you’re grateful for the fact that there’s a new film coming out that you’re very excited about? These are all legitimate things!
Now try to carry this over into your daily life. Each time you think of something you don’t have, or that isn’t the way you want it, try to think as well about the things you’re grateful for and what you do have. Don’t have that big flat screen TV? Well just be grateful you have a computer that can watch pretty much any film you can dream of on demand.
Likewise, you should try and think about language and the way you talk – which can have a big impact on your gratitude as well as on the way that other people think about you.
For example, trying to stop complaining is something that is very worthwhile. The next time you find yourself saying anything negative, try and follow it up with a positive point that counteracts it. You’ll feel happier and people will think of you as a more positive person they want to be around!
A Quick Primer on Neurotransmitters
Using mindfulness and CBT, it’s possible for us to change the way we react to stressful events and to essentially reprogram our stress response. Likewise, we can use this to improve our happiness, to get to sleep more easily and much more.
But when we do all this, what we’re really doing is affecting the chemistry of our brains. We’re changing the neurochemicals in our brain and that in turn is changing the way we feel and even the way we perform.
This is why it can be a good idea to learn more about what neurotransmitters really are and how they work. Once you do that, you’ll have more idea of what it is you’re actually doing to change your brain functions and in turn, this will make you more effective at it.
What Are Neurotransmitters?
Your brain is made up of a large network of different cells called neurons. This network is sometimes called your ‘connectome’ and essentially, each of these cells represents a thought, an idea, a memory or a sensation.
As we think or experience the world around us, these cells ‘fire’ by releasing an electrical signal like a circuit. That signal travels over the synapses – the gaps between brain cells – and this then allows them to create the rich experiences that we’re familiar with in a kind of cascade.
In terms of the way that a cell fires, it can either be ‘on or off’. That is to say that there aren’t ‘levels’ of firing. After a certain amount of excitation, a cell fires and then stops firing.
But that’s not to say that the signal is entirely binary. Because at the same time, the brain also releases chemicals called neurotransmitters which color various aspects of the signal.
This can alter how likely it is for the cell to fire again, it can strengthen the connection between two cells, or it make us feel happy or sad about that thing.
Your Brain Chemistry
Your brain is filled with neurotransmitters which affect receptors on brain cells and have a short lifespan. At the same time, hormones like testosterone and cortisol can also affect the brain in a similar way acting like secondary neurotransmitters.
These hormones and neurotransmitters are moderated partly by our thoughts. If we change which cells fire, we change which hormones and neurotransmitters get released.
But it’s much more complex than this. For starters, our hormones and neurotransmitters are tied closely to our lifestyles and various biological factors. When we’re hungry for instance, low blood sugar encourages the release of cortisol – the stress hormone. This in turn encourages the release of ghrelin, the hunger hormone.
When we have high blood sugar though, we release insulin and this increases the tryptophan in the brain. That tryptophan is converted to serotonin, making us feel good, and this is later converted into melatonin – the sleep hormone.
In short, our physical health is directly linked to our mental state and vice versa, putting us firmly at the mercy of our biology. But that said, using mindfulness, it is possible to regain control over this situation and to decide exactly how we want to feel and when.
How to Start Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness is a tool that can be used for a few things. For starters, it can be used as a great form of meditation that gives us a break from all the chatter and noise of our daily lives.
At the same time, it can also be used as a great way to become more in-tune with our own thoughts and feelings. And finally, it can be useful for addressing flaws in our thinking and correcting them with techniques such as CBT.
If you’re interested in giving this a go though, then it might seem a little daunting. The prospect of mindfulness is one that many people find off putting, as meditation is very often thought to be necessary linked with mysticism or with religion. Likewise, many people quickly become frustrated when they don’t see immediate results.
Read on then and we’ll look at how to start your first mindfulness session with the best chances of success.
Step 1. Breathe
The first step is simply to breathe. Breathing deeply in and out through the nose will help you to reduce stress levels by circulating more oxygen around your body and sending signals to your brain that you are in the ‘rest and digest state’. Cortisol decreases and brain activity slows.
Step 2. Concentrate on Your Senses
The next thing to do is to concentrate on your senses. This is a good way to start bringing the attention inward, so just listen out for any sounds that you normally miss, notice what temperature you are and think about the smells you can detect.
Don’t ‘look’ for sounds, just let them come to you. You’ll likely find there is much more in your soundscape than you initially realized.
Step 3. Use Body Scan Meditation
The next step is to turn your awareness in even more and use something called ‘body scan’ meditation. This means that you’re now concentrating on your own body and in particular, how it feels.
Start from your head and face and notice the muscles that are contracted. Move down through your neck, shoulders, arms and all the way to your toes.
Finally, return your attention to your chest and how it rises and falls as you breathe. Now you’re going to count your breaths for a while to allow the thoughts to become still.
Step 4. Let Your Mind do What it Wants
Finally, you’re going to allow your mind to do whatever it wants. That means allowing it to wander, allowing it to sit still: whatever.
The point is that you are going to remain detached from the flow of thoughts and while you might notice them, you’re not going to get ‘caught up’ in them. When you notice yourself getting lost, simply bring yourself calmly back to the center.
Don’t apply any pressure on yourself during this process. Don’t expect immediate results and don’t worry if you need to stop to itch. The whole point is to just allow yourself a gentle break and the more you push for results, the less likely they are to come.
How to Breathe Correctly and What it Can do for You
The way you breathe has a huge impact on your stress levels and can do a great deal to make you more or less stressed. That’s because our breathing is deeply connected to our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and regulates the release of hormones and neurotransmitters such as cortisol, testosterone and adrenaline.
When you are stressed, your breathing quickens and becomes shallower. When you are relaxed, you breathe more deeply and fully. This correlation works both ways though – so slowing your breathing will make you less stressed and vice versa.
The key is to make sure that when you are relaxing, you are able to breathe in as deeply and fully as possible. And there are a few ways to do this.
Right now, you are probably breathing wrong. Most of us don’t give much thought to the way we breathe and as a result, we probably use bad habits.
To find out if you’re breathing incorrectly, place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Now breath normally and make a note of which hand moves first – and whether both move at all. What you might find is that the chest moves first and the stomach moves ever-so-slightly afterward.
Unfortunately, this is wrong and it won’t allow you to bring in as much breath as possible.
Instead, you should breathe first by allowing your stomach to distend, which will in turn open up the abdominal cavity. You should then breathe so that your lungs fill into this space and then move your chest.
This not only allows you to bring in much more oxygen, making you feel much healthier; it also trains your transverse abdominis and encourages proper posture.
If you look at a baby or an animal, this is how they breathe naturally. So what went wrong for us? It comes down to posture again – and the fact that we spend so long sitting in front of a computer hunched over and unable to breathe from the stomach.
Trying to remember to do this is not easy which is just one more reason that mindfulness training is so valuable – you can use it to become more mindful of the way you’re breathing.
During actual meditation though, you will want to breathe as deeply and as efficiently as possible. One way to do this is to use something called ‘equal breathing’ from yoga. This involves breathing in and out through the nose and counting the seconds for both the inhalation and exhalation making sure that they are equal.
Ideally, you’re trying to breathe in and out for a good 3 seconds or more, which will allow you to completely fill and then completely empty the lungs, refreshing all that important oxygen in your body.
Use this at the start of your mindfulness meditation and it will help you to become more relaxed and more focused and will help you improve your breathing in the long term too.
How to Control Anxiety During Stressful Moments
Imagine that you have an interview for a big job you want coming up. And imagine that said job interview is with someone very important and who has a reputation for being tough.
In the build up to this event, you’ll probably find yourself feeling very anxious and nervous. This will trigger the release of fight or flight hormones like adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. As such, you’ll start shaking, you’ll start sweating, your pupils will dilate and your muscles will contract.
This stress response is designed to help us if ever we get into a physical confrontation or we need to run away. But when we’re in a situation like an interview or a date, it really doesn’t help.
So the question is, what can you do to overcome this and stay calm even in high pressured situations?
Luckily, there are a few methods that are known to work quite well…
The first thing to do is to remember to breathe. And don’t just breathe – breathe deeply. When you do this, you will be able to instantly engage your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ state that we can go into.
This state is actually the exact opposite of fight or flight and it helps us to feel calmer and more relaxed.
The worst thing you can do when you start to panic is to breathe faster and more shallowly, as this just makes you more stressed and can eventually cause you pass out if things get really bad!
Lean Into It
Another tip? Don’t worry about being stressed. Too often, we get stressed and anxious and then try to fight it.
Unfortunately, fighting stress is completely counterproductive as the more we fight, the more we raise our fight or flight response even more.
Eventually this causes our heart rate to run more quickly, our muscles to contract more and for us to become even more tense.
At this point, you’re now stressed about being stressed!
So instead, the goal should be to help yourself accept the stress and recognize it for what it is. Stress makes you your strongest and most powerful.
Instead of trying to fight it, just let it happen but give it a positive spin. This might mean thinking of your situation as a challenge, or it might mean thinking of an idol you know who has handled a similar situation well.
Rise to the challenge and enjoy your body getting worked up ready to enhance your performance.
If you can do all this well, then you can eventually tap into enhanced performance without the feelings of dread or the crawling stomach that can come from regular stress. If you do this really well, then it can become a ‘flow state’ which is a state of heightened performance characterized by reduced activity in the frontal cortex.
So just concentrate on the task at hand, give it full focus, feel your body become more alert and toned and tell yourself: game on.
Understanding How Stress Affects You and Why it Isn’t Always Bad
Most of us know it’s no good to be stressed. We’ve heard that this is bad for our health and we know it can make us unhappy.
But why exactly is this? What specifically is happening in the body and the brain when we’re stressed? And did you know that sometimes stress can actually be a very good thing?
The Fight or Flight Response
At its most visceral, stress is characterized by the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is how the body reacts to danger and extreme stress: by releasing a combination of different hormones and neurotransmitters, each of which will bring about different physiological changes in the body and brain.
Those neurotransmitters and hormones include: dopamine, adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, serotonin, testosterone and glutamate. These are all ‘excitatory’ neurotransmitters that increase our brain activity and make us more alert, more focussed and better able to remember the details of whatever is happening around us.
Our body also goes through several changes at this point: our heartrate increases, our breathing gets faster, our muscles contract, our pupils dilate and generally we become better able to perform physically. This means that we can either run from danger, or fight an opponent and stand a better chance of winning. Blood is directed away from our immune system and digestion and towards our muscles and brain and our blood even thickens so that it will be more likely to clot if we get injured.
So stress isn’t a purely bad thing. If you really were in physical danger, then this response could genuinely save your life. But the problems emerge when the fight or flight response doesn’t go away.
This is what happens when we’re stressed about debt, taxes, or work. We remain in a constantly excited state and this means we can go a long time with suppressed immune function and digestion. Ultimately, this begins to make it more likely that we will become ill or malnourished!
This is why we generally think of stress as being bad and it’s why using something like mindfulness meditation can be so useful.
When Stress is Good
But stress can also be a good thing. That’s the case when, for example, you need a little bit of motivation to get something done. Low level chronic stress is the same stress that makes us revise for exams, save money for the future and generally take action to try and avoid negative outcomes.
In this context, the stress is called ‘eustress’ and is highly desirable.
Finally, stress can also be a good thing if you’re able to harness it for good. If you can see your situation not as being dangerous but as being a fun challenge, then you can enter something known as a ‘flow state’. Here we enjoy heightened focus, stronger muscles and improved reactions – but none of the negatives like negative thoughts.
Stress isn’t one response but is rather a whole spectrum of different states that are moderated by different levels of specific neurotransmitters and hormones.
How to Use CBT to Get to Sleep Easily
If you suffer with insomnia or otherwise find it hard to get to sleep, then you will find that this can have unpleasant and unwanted knock-on effects in every area of your life. Sleep is critical for our mood, our immune system, our memory and much more and if you struggle to drift off, then you won’t be running on all cylinders the next day. In the long term, you can end up being more likely to become ill!
There are lots of things you can do to improve your ability to get to sleep. Improving the environment you’re sleeping in will help for example, as will making sure that you’re relaxed before bed and avoiding things like caffeine or action-packed computer games right before you drift off.
But your ability to sleep is also to do with your mental state and if you can’t get in the right mindframe for sleep, then no amount of ‘sleep hygiene’ is going to help. Fortunately we have CBT to help us change the way we think (cognitive behavioural therapy).
So the question then, is how you can use CBT to get to sleep more easily? And the answer to that question is simpler than you think…
How to Get to Sleep… Stop Trying!
The irony is that worrying about getting to sleep is just about the worst thing you can possibly do for a sound night. The problem is that many of us identify as people who have trouble sleeping.
Thus, when we go to bed, we do so expecting that we’re going to have problems drifting off and this means we’re in a somewhat defensive state of mind before we rest.
This in turn causes more problems because it means we’re not going to bed essentially during a stress response. We’re stressed that we’re not getting to sleep ironically! And this in turn means that we’ll end up beating ourselves up, tossing and turning and getting more and more aggravated that we aren’t actually resting.
Have you ever looked at the clock, seen that it’s 4am, and just felt a sense of dread about what tomorrow is going to be like?
That sense of dread means your heart rate will have increased and it means that your thoughts will be racing. This is the furthest from sleep you could be!
So what do you do instead?
The first step is to recognize that simply lying in bed is actually very good for helping you to repair your body and rest. This is one reason to feel less stressed: the very fact that you’re lying down is already beneficial so you don’t need to completely rely on sleep.
But this only works if you’re enjoying yourself and if you’re calm. For this reason, the next thing to do is to just allow yourself to enjoy the relaxation. Focus on the fact that you don’t need to be anywhere and on the fact that you don’t have to do anything. Think about nice things and how comfortable you are.
And guess what? If you can do this, you’ll be asleep in minutes!
How to Use CBT to Change Your Life
Mindfulness is a type of meditation that encourages us to step back from what’s going on in our minds and to learn to detach ourselves from it. We’re not trying to silence our thoughts but rather we’re trying to just change the way that we respond to them.
Know that your negative emotions are not who you are – they are temporary and they will pass.
But you can take mindfulness even further than this when you combine it with CBT.
CBT stands for ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ and one of the biggest parts of this therapeutic approach is something called ‘cognitive restructuring’.
Simply, cognitive restructuring means changing the way that you think in order to be healthier, more adapted and even more focused and productive.
This creates a two step process: we use CBT in order to identify our thoughts and become familiar with them and then we use cognitive restructuring in order to then change them. But how does one go about this?
There are actually a few methods.
- Thought Challenging
The first step is something called thought challenging. The idea here is to look at the thoughts and beliefs you have and then to challenge those to find out if you should really believe them or not.
So for example, if you are afraid of public speaking, you might find that it’s because you believe you’re likely to stutter and that if you do stutter, people will laugh at you.
So now your objective is to challenge those thoughts and identify if they’re valid concerns or not. How likely are those things to happen? Could you cope if they did?
In this particular case, what you would hopefully realize is that most people are kind enough that they won’t laugh at you if you stutter. Instead, they’ll be more likely to just listen politely until you finish! Likewise, you’ll realize that it doesn’t really matter what strangers think who you’re never going to have to see again most likely…
- Hypothesis Testing
The next stage is ‘hypothesis testing’. This is similar to thought challenging except we’re stepping things up a notch. How? By actually testing the theory and seeing if it’s founded in reality. So instead of just challenging the thought, we’re actually going to see if it holds up.
So if you’re afraid of public speaking because you think that you might ‘choke’ and people will laugh at you, then what you need to do is to go up on the stage and perfectly not say anything.
You’ll find this is incredibly awkward but what you’ll also find is that no one laughs and nothing bad comes of it. You’ve tested the hypothesis and found that it’s untrue. The worst case scenario really isn’t that bad!
There are other tools you can use in CBT too. These include the likes of reassociation and other strategies borrowed from behaviorism. Ultimately though, these two methods are the cornerstones of what makes this method work.
How to Have the Energy and Motivation to Succeed
If you want to be as successful as possible, then you need to be able to have the drive, determination and focus to get there.
Take a look at any of the world’s most successful people and you will find they have almost superhuman levels of motivation.
Arnold Schwarzenegger talks about visualizing his goals from a young age and even breaking into the gym to train on days when it wasn’t open.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson frequently posts on Instagram his alarm going off at 4am in the morning when he gets up to train.
Neither of these guys ever seems to have a day when they’re too tired or not enthusiastic.
Will Smith says the secret to his success is just being willing to run further and longer than everyone else on the treadmill of life.
If you have the determination and the energy, then you will put in more hours and more work at every stage of the game.
And as you do so, you’ll be more enthusiastic doing it and happier doing it.
Imagine coming home from a hard day at work and having all the energy you need to pack away your clothes, to wash the dishes, to do a workout and then to work on your side project before playing with the kids and romancing the wife.
Many of us say we don’t have ‘time’ to get into shape or achieve the things we want to achieve but this isn’t really accurate.
More likely, it’s actually that you don’t have the energy – and this is why you may find yourself just crashing in front of the TV rather than doing anything productive.
So the question is, how can you change that about yourself? How can you get the drive that produces the energy you need to go after the things you want?
Setting the Right Goals
One thing to do is to learn to set your goals correctly. The mistake that many of us make is to have goals that are too out of our control, too long term and too vague.
For instance, saying you want to lose 3 stone in a year makes it hard to know how much you should train or how you should eat. You can take it easy for a week and just make up for it next week… right?
Instead then, make your goals much more immediate and much more within your control. In this case, the goal might be to work out 4 times a week and to eat less than 2,000 calories a day. Those are precise goals that you can try and accomplish every single day – there’s nothing left to chance or the long term.
At the same time, it’s also important to make sure you always remember why you are doing those things and that you have a clear vision for what it is you’re trying to achieve.
If, for example, you want to be a famous fitness vlogger on YouTube, then you should visualise that whenever you’re trying to convince yourself to workout.
Think about what it’s like and really immerse yourself in the emotion of it.
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