Mindfulness has been practiced as part of meditative exercises for thousands of years, becoming renowned for its calming function and its ability to improve mental and spiritual well-being. Modern psychological research is beginning to reveal that it is an effective form of therapy for anxiety. Mindfulness owes its origins to eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, and to the practice of meditation. Its more recent application in therapy owes much to those traditions, but alongside an increasing popularity, it has now gained a robust and more scientific evidence base.
Mindfulness is a therapeutic approach that focuses on ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It values and teaches acceptance of the moment as it is experienced now – and by extension, an acceptance of feelings and responses that may have been with us for decades.
Scans on the brains of people who practice mindfulness demonstrate their greater ability to activate the sensory, sensitive, experiential or ‘being’ areas and to switch comfortably and easily from the ‘doing’ areas more concerned with thinking and which focuses on narratives and future plans and analysis of past experience…those areas which are likely to support anxieties.
There are different ‘varieties’ of mindfulness, which borrow concepts and techniques from other therapies to form ‘hybrids’, but all with the common thread aim of enabling us to react less to whatever is happening to us, and to relate to experience in a new way.
Practicing therapists see mindfulness as a skill, which gets better, and more effective, with practice. Mindfulness teaches us to pay close attention to our experience and to heighten awareness, to ignore distractions and just to ‘be’. In therapy, it aims to bring new insights and a deeper wisdom.
Neuroscientific research indicates that the positive effects of mindfulness on mental well-being may be at least partly as result of the changes it brings in the brain: the parts of the brain associated with sensory processing, together with those used in the regulation of emotions, become more developed and increase in size. The results of mindfulness meditation is improved well being and, crucially, reduced or even absent symptoms of a range of conditions and concerns, including anxiety.