Mindfulness Therapy: How Living in the Now Helps Create a Better Tomorrow

mindfulness therapy - picture if woman doing mindfulness in London



Find out how simple changes can actually alter the structure of your brain and lead to greater contentment and reduced risks of mental health problems in the future.  It’s not science-fiction, but science-fact….

There are a plethora of options out there for improving wellbeing and mental health that run the gamut from the pharmaceutical to the more…pseudoscientific. But for many of us, the ideal solution would be something that is always available, free of side effects, low-impact, and (of course) effective. If you fall under this umbrella, there’s some good news, and it’s called mindfulness.  Yu may have heard about it lately…  Whilst it isn’t a panacea for everything, most people can find some benefits to regular mindfulness practise.

Mindfulness is also  recommended by the NHS for certain emotional and physical problems. Here’s everything you need to know to start living a more mindful existence of grounded mental wellbeing….


The Basics Of Mindfulness

You might be wondering what is Mindfulness or What Is Mindfulness Therapy?

mindfulness basics - picture of a mindfulness mat

In a nutshell, the concept of mindfulness teaches us to completely focus our attention not on the past or the future generally, but the present moment. The idea is that you focus on your present experience in an entirely non-judgemental way that helps bring about a greater clarity and awareness.

With the often busy pace of our lives, it can be difficult to truly focus on what we are doing from moment to moment – where perhaps it should be that we are called ‘human doings’ rather than ‘human beings’.  Can you remember the last time that you consciously switched into focusing closely and in an unbiased way to how it felt to just ‘be’ rather than ‘do’?

The likely answer for most people here is no! The result can be a fast-paced blur in which we find ourselves going from one task to the next without having the time to stop, consider and take time to truly think about what and how we are doing.


A Brief History Of Mindfulness
Mindfulness might be able to help, however it is not a new concept.  In fact it is a concept that has been known for centuries by many of the world’s wisdom traditions.  Whilst the language and cultures around mindfulness have changed and evolved, the key principles are generally the same.

Whilst Mindful practice is most associated with Buddhism, there are early recorded mentions of the process within ancient Hindu texts from around 1500 BC that describe a process of reflectiveness and contemplation.  These descriptions closely match guidelines that evolved later into teachings given within Buddhism.

Buddhist meditation practices around 500 BC began to focus on a process of building awareness and at-oneness with the body, and frequently made use of techniques such as bringing an awareness of the process of breathing and sensation in the body.  By doing this, early Buddhists theorised that it would be possible to ascend above day-to-day concerns and achieve a greater sense of enlightenment and understanding of what it is to be alive.

As other religions and teachings came into being, the concepts of mindfulness also became frequently interwoven – for example in many of the worlds religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam there are prayer traditions that involve being present, connected and focused on particular moment-by-moment experiences.


Mindfulness,  Western Psychology & Brain Changes.

However, although Mindfulness has historically been linked closely with religion, over the past 30 years of so there has been a growing interested in mindfulness within the western world – particularly in the secular scientific communities that have sought to understand it in empirical and verifiable ways.

Largely psychologists wanted to understand in scientific ways the wisdom than many eastern practises already knew to be true.  With the discoveries and advances in brain imaging they have been able to gradually draw links between certain types of mindfulness practice and actual changes  to the biology of the brain.

In the same way as exercising a muscle regularly encourages the muscle to grow extra fibres and become stronger, by regularly using the brain in certain ways, it has been found that a gradual changing of brain structure takes place – this is known as neuroplasticity.  It means that, whatever age you are, your brain is always adapting and building stronger connections in regions that you use more frequently, and weaker connections in regions that you use less of the time.

It’s exactly this process that happens when learning takes place.  For example, if you decide to learn how to play a musical instrument and regularly practice, you will gradually notice your skills improve, with relatively less effort required to achieve the same outcomes over time.  (Think of a professional musician being able to play complex pieces of music without really having to ‘think hard’ about what they are doing anymore.)

In practice, psychologists found that the same was true with how people use their minds in other areas of life – which ultimately led to differences in how their brains actually are forming.

One such example is that the brains of regular meditators tended to show much less grey matter (or blocks of dense nerve cells) in a number of areas of the brain including the amygdala – an area of the brain that is responsible to identifying threat and danger.  At the same time, they also noticed that other areas of the brain were developing more grey matter (and therefore stronger connections), such as the prefrontal cortex, which is an area that is strongly involved with rational, logical understanding, decision making and attention.

With certain types of mindfulness practices, such as compassion focused therapy, and compassionate mindfulness changes in brain structure have been noticed in parts of the brain responsible for leading to the production of oxytocin, a powerful chemical that leads the mind and body to be soothed.  (Its no co-incidence that oxytocin is similar in chemical structure to some opiates!)

A brief video filmed by the BBC shows clear differences in brain scans of those who have undertaken regular mindfulness practice for a range of problems that might otherwise trigger a large amygdala responses – such as experiences of chronic pain.



Why (and what) Mindfulness Can Help

Whilst mindfulness isn’t a panacea that can help all problems, it is widely thought that some degree of mindful practise in everyday life can help most people bring about a greater sense of clarity and calmness.  It’s no surprise that mindfulness is rapidly being introduced as a skill to people in schools, prisons and hospitals – places that threat systems in the brain, or pressure can frequently be activated.

However much research has also been carried out to find out if Mindfulness Therapy can have significant benefits for people with particular emotional problems – and the research has been promising, with varying degrees of research showing possible usefulness of Mindfulness Therapy for the following problems:

One key area that has been significantly researched is the effects that mindfulness therapies such as ‘Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy’ and ‘Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction’ can have on recurring episodes of depression.  Results indicate that for people who have had three or more episodes of clinical depression in their lives a course of mindfulness therapy following an episode of depression can significantly reduce their chances of having further episodes of depression in the future.

It should be noted that clinical recommendations tend to suggest that for people currently experiencing an episode of depression that haven’t tried any type of mindfulness practise or mindfulness therapy in the past, that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be a better place to initially start.

There are also some other times in which is is best to seek professional help before starting a formal mindfulness course – for example, if you are experiencing problems related to PTSD or addictions, as mentioned above, in which there might be some specific ways of approaching mindfulness that you might find more useful than traditional mindfulness approaches that can be found in books, online or in general mindfulness classes.


Why Mindfulness Works

It’s easy to dismiss an idea like mindfulness as just another fly-by-night trend that does no real good in the long term – but hopefully the information above has provided you some ideas of how mindfulness meditation and mindfulness therapy can affect the brain.

In fact, numerous scientific studies have proven that mindfulness is effective in treating all of the problems listed above. One such study set out to test MBSR as a therapy tool and concluded that this is an excellent approach to “alleviate symptoms, both mental and physical, in the adjunct treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, depression, anxiety disorders in healthy adults and children.”  A wide range of problems!


Bringing Mindfulness Into Your Life

So how can you start living a more fulfilling mindfulness-based lifestyle?

Well, it can be as simple as setting aside just 10 minutes per day. One way to start and experiment with mindfulness is to find a quiet spot, sit in an upright yet relaxed position (you don’t want to fall asleep), and then focus on your breathing. Become aware of the moment by moment changes that happen as you breathe in and out. Allow thoughts to enter your mind, but don’t dwell on them – just observe them and let them pass whilst keeping your attention towards the experiences of breathing. The idea is not to avoid consciousness or distract ourselves away from other experiences, but to simply let them be, while the attention is held on the current state of the body and breath.

This of course is a very simple idea that focuses on the mindfulness of breathing, which can be a good place to start in anchoring your attention.  As with most things, it is best to seek some guidance on ideas that might help you get the most from your mindfulness practise to gradually build upon this basic technique in a way that will help you achieve the outcomes that you might hope for.

If you are looking into mindfulness for mental health or emotional problems, then the best place to start is having a full assessment with a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist or Psychologist, which can be quick and simple by locating private cognitive behavioural therapists in your local area – many are now very familiar with mindfulness-based approaches, however it is always a good idea to check.  It can also be helpful to ask your therapist what their direct experience is of practicing mindfulness.

Unlike traditional CBT, it is more usual to find that Therapists offering mindfulness therapy actively use mindfulness exercises within their day-to-day lives personally, and most will be happy to share this information openly with you, so don’t be afraid to ask.

There’s plenty more information out there about mindfulness and how it can help you. So why stop here?  For Questions, or to see how our clinics could help – why not get in touch today?


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