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Mind full? A beginner’s guide to mindfulness

We show you how you can use mindfulness in everyday life.

A couple meditate together while sitting on cushions
A couple meditate together while sitting on cushions

Several studies show that it’s the technique that may reduce the symptoms of depression by up to 20%, so it seems that mindfulness is anything but another health buzzword.

We set out to investigate the basics of mindfulness, how it works and how we can put it to use in everyday life – and here’s what we found.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the informal act that aims to get you focussing your mind on the present; acknowledging and accepting what’s going on inside and outside your body.

Meditation is the formal act that helps us get there. We sometimes refer to meditation as exercise for the mind and we meditate to strengthen our mindfulness skills.

Sounds simple, right?

For those who aren’t practised at meditation, it can actually be pretty tricky to train yourself to block out any distractions and be entirely present and aware of what’s going on, but not reactive or overwhelmed by it.

For some, it comes naturally; for others, there are techniques you can practise to meet your mindfulness mark.

A woman smiles as she stretches back from her laptop screen with her arms in the air

How does mindfulness work?

We live in such a busy world, it’s easy for us to get caught in sensory overload, overwhelmed by anxiety and caught up in stress. Mindfulness brings you back into the present, allows you to observe your emotions and feelings without letting them control you. The theory is that this will allow you to better manage your thoughts.

“Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity and without judgement. The Smiling Mind app offers a unique web and app-based tool developed by psychologists and educators to help bring balance to people’s lives,” according to Smiling Mind CEO, Dr Addie Wootten.

Dr Wootten goes onto say, “Just as we eat well and stay fit to keep our body healthy, mindfulness meditation is about mental health and looking after the mind. Our meditation programs are designed to assist people in dealing with the pressure, stress and challenges of daily life.”

Credit: nib Health Insurance

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

Many of the world’s most recognisable brands including Google and IBM Australia recognise the benefits of mindfulness and now offer mindfulness training to their employees. And it’s not just your work that may reap the benefits of mindfulness. We’ve trawled through studies and journal papers to find just a few of the ways that mindfulness may help:

1. Reduce your anxiety

A 2013 trial study into the effect of mindfulness on those with generalised anxiety disorder found that those who took part in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program may have significantly reduced levels in anxiety and distress ratings compared to those who didn’t.

2. Become more compassionate

Have you ever wondered what makes someone a ‘good person’? Well, a study from Northeastern University and Harvard University showed that meditation could be the key.

One of the researchers, Paul Condon explained,

“We know meditation improves a person’s own physical and psychological wellbeing. We wanted to know whether it actually increases compassionate behaviour.”

The researchers went on to test participants’ compassionate behaviour after undergoing eight-weeks of two types of meditation. Placing participants in a staged waiting room, they wanted to see whether participants would help someone (an actor) who was in pain.

15% of people who didn’t undergo meditation training helped the person in pain, whereas up to 50% of those who completed the meditation training went to the aid of the person.

Professor of psychology at Northeastern University, David DeSteno said,

“The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous — to help another who was suffering — even in the face of a norm not to do so. The fact that the other actors were ignoring the pain creates a ‘bystander-effect’ that normally tends to reduce helping. People often wonder ‘Why should I help someone if no one else is?’”

3. Prevent and treat depression

A common treatment for depression is prescribed antidepressants, but many people are interested in alternatives to taking medication. So in 2010/11, a study led by University of Oxford Professor Willem Kuyken set out to find the effect that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) had on individuals with a history of recurring depression.

The study found that MBCT helped prevent depression from repeating just as effectively as maintenance antidepressant medication did.

Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity and without judgement

4. Decrease body dissatisfaction

A 2014 study has been published to test whether self-compassion meditation training may help mitigate body dissatisfaction among women. It found that after a three-week period of training, those that participated in the meditation had greater gains in self-compassion and body appreciation as well as reductions in body dissatisfaction and body shame than those in the control group. These improvements were maintained when the researchers reassessed the groups three months later.

5. Reduce distractions

Finding it hard to stay concentrated at work? It could be because of your inability to regulate the brain wave called the alpha rhythm. A Harvard study found that subjects who completed an eight-week mindfulness meditation program were able to better adjust their brain waves to screen out distractions which could explain an improved ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.

6. Improve sleep

Who doesn’t want better sleep? The University of Utah conducted a study on the connection between mindfulness and emotional wellbeing – and it seems that better sleep may be another benefit.

One of the students involved, Holly Rau explained, “People who reported higher levels of mindfulness described better control over their emotions and behaviours during the day. In addition, higher mindfulness was associated with lower activation at bedtime, which could have benefits for sleep quality and future ability to manage stress.”

Keen to learn the art of mindfulness? nib foundation partner, Smiling Mind offers a free, easy-to-use app that provides mindfulness meditation training programs that you can do anywhere, anytime. The app has already reached two million people across the globe and is used by tens of thousands of educators in schools. nib is also proud to support Smiling Mind and the NPY Women’s Council – Ngangkari Program to deliver Australia’s first mindfulness-based meditation app and accompanying resources which cater to the language and culture of Indigenous Australians. For more information, head to the Smiling Mind website.