Mindfulness is used to support a plethora of mental health conditions but let’s focus on three of the most common: chronic stress, anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness helps by working with stress both in the body and in the mind. When stressful thoughts or emotions arrive, in a mindfulness practice, we notice them and allow them to pass. However, this can be very challenging, especially if the thoughts are determined to stay or generate more thinking and this then triggers difficult emotions.
Therefore, rather than working with stress at the mental/emotional level, it is often easier to work with the body. Bring your attention to your body right now… and see where the stress is showing up in the body… it may be raised shoulders, a tight jaw or tense temples. When bringing attention to the area, the body often very naturally releases the tension, especially if you use a couple of deeper breaths and allow the body to let go on the outbreath.
Anxiety can be a very challenging condition to manage. The thoughts come so rapidly and, as a species, we have evolved to be cautious and anxious. This is what the neuroscientists call the negativity bias: it’s safer to think that rustle in the grass is a snake rather than a toad!
That sort of worry has kept us safe for thousands of years. However, as a species, we’ve become too good at predicting the negative so that life can become a succession of continual worries and concerns.
Mindfulness can help us step back from the stream of thoughts and worries. Then we can decide when our thoughts are useful and constructive and when they are simply overthinking about something that may not happen at all. And, even if the threat turns out to be something challenging, mindfulness allows us to take a breath, find some headspace and look for ‘creative responses’ rather than ‘destructive reactions.’
Britain has been leading the world in using mindfulness for the treatment of depression since the turn of the century when Mark Williams and his colleagues developed their MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) programme. Their aim was to use mindfulness and cognitive therapy together, not necessarily in place of medication but alongside and after medication use in order to avoid relapse. Similar to the way mindfulness helps reduce anxiety, it can interrupt depressive thoughts (rumination) and help the person to breath and then manage their thoughts towards a different direction.
MBCT is rarely delivered in the workplace. However, shorter workplace programmes can help people manage mild depressive symptoms and improve wellbeing which can catch and decrease depressive symptoms in the early stages.