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What is mindfulness and when should we use it?

The following article is written by happiness expert and psychologist Dr Melissa Weinberg from Deakin University’s School of Psychology. 

In a world where we find ourselves multi-tasking, always on the go, and struggling to balance all the stresses of modern day life, the mindfulness industry, complete with its calming mindful spaces, pungent scents and overpriced colouring books, is thriving.

Here, it’s claimed, is a cure for anxiety and distress, that will increase your happiness and physical health, and you can do it all from the comfort of your own couch. It’s so popular that there are more than 1500 apps to facilitate it, and vulnerable consumers have helped drive the leading US app, Headspace, to a business with an estimated value of $250million.

It’s even said to have been the secret behind Richmond’s AFL Grand Final win. Note: Richmond is not the only AFL club who practices mindfulness, so something doesn’t add up there …

So what is mindfulness and how can we reap the benefits to become healthier, happier, and infinitely more successful at everything we do?

In this two-part series, we’ll explore the effectiveness of mindfulness and the evidence for and against its use. Does it work? Should everyone do it? How long do you need to do it for to notice an impact?

To start with, we need to clarify what we’re talking about, and distinguish mindfulness as a psychotherapeutic technique from both deep breathing, and meditation.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, is a type of breathing that involves filling the lungs with as much air as possible to facilitate more oxygen into the bloodstream with each breath. When you breathe this way, both the chest and stomach expand on air intake. To maximise the efficiency of deep breathing, the exhale is typically longer than the inhale, so deep breathers are taught to slowly blow out as much air as they can, imagining they are slowly blowing up a balloon and then gently letting the air go.

Often, musicians, swimmers, and other performers are very familiar with this type of breathing. They have been trained to use it to maximise the amount of air they take in, so that they can use it to enhance their performance on the stage or in the pool.

Importantly, deep breathing involves the conscious adaptation of a physiological state. It is the style of breathing that is invoked during meditation and mindfulness.

'When you’re being mindful, you are focused on whatever it is you are doing in the present moment.'

Dr Melissa Weinberg,
Deakin University

Meditation

With a rich history spanning different cultures and religions, the term ‘meditation’ describes practices that aim to produce a calm, relaxed state of consciousness. These can include things like the repetition of mantras, visualisation, emotional-regulation strategies, and mindfulness. People can achieve this state through engaging in different exercises, like yoga.

Commonly, meditation conjures up the image of a monk sitting deep in contemplative thought, and is associated with the traditional Buddhist technique. This, in many ways, comes closest to the contemporary understanding of mindfulness.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves moment-to-moment awareness. It’s paying attention in a very specific and intentional way, and adopting a non-judgmental and accepting approach. When you’re being mindful, you are focused on whatever it is you are doing in the present moment. You develop the capacity for meta-awareness, that is, the ability to notice whether your mind has wandered or become distracted, and can engage a strategy to return focus to the target stimulus, whether it be your breathing, the taste of the chocolate you’re eating, or the colour and texture of an object.

During meditation the focus is on feeling relaxed, but in mindfulness the focus is actually on your focus. So, it’s a state where you are intentionally focused and aware of what is going on in the present moment. Although people typically engage in mindfulness whilst sitting still with their eyes closed in an environment void of sound and bright lights, you can be mindful while lying in bed, mindful while drinking a cup of coffee, and mindful while you’re playing sport.

It might help to think of deep breathing as the physiological action, meditation as a strategy to achieve an emotional outcome, and being mindful as a cognitive state of focused, non-judgmental attention.

In the next piece, we’ll look at some of the important research on mindfulness, and explain how it can help to calm the brain, manage anxiety, and restore a sense of control.

Interested in learning more about how the mind works? Check out Deakin’s range of psychology courses. 

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Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

Honorary Fellow, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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