Mindfulness is a mental state where you focus on the present, without judging or being distracted. Mindfulness can help you feel better and reduce stress. It is a useful technique that can help you deal with difficult emotions and situations. Sometimes mindfulness is incorporated into meditation practices, where it is described as ‘mindfulness meditation’.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is paying full attention to what is going on in you and outside you, moment by moment, without judgment. It means you observe your thoughts, feelings, and the sensations of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. You are also fully aware of your surroundings.
Mindfulness does not try to quiet your mind or control your experience — you just observe what is happening in the moment.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation principles. However, anyone can practise mindfulness to improve their self-awareness and wellbeing.
Watch this video from This Way Up about ways to cope during stressful or difficult times.
When am I not mindful?
Many people have routines in their daily lives, such as waking up and going to work or school. If you are doing something familiar in customary surroundings, you may tend to operate on autopilot and not notice what’s actually going on.
For instance, you might eat a whole packet of chips in front of the TV without actually noticing the taste. You may read half a page of a book and then realise that you haven’t taken any of it in.
Some people spend a lot of time thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Being caught up in your thoughts may even make it hard to fall asleep at night.
Mindfulness helps you to put some space between negative thoughts and feelings and your reactions, such as rumination or anger.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a way of training yourself to focus your attention in a certain way. It can help you in your day-to-day life, work, relationships and overall wellbeing.
Wellbeing and stress relief
Stressful thoughts come and go. Without being mindful, you may react to these stressful or negative thoughts and feelings. It’s easy to be drawn into rumination — where you dwell excessively on problems and worries about the past and the future.
Practising mindfulness may help to anchor you in the present, where you can observe your thoughts and feelings without chasing them and without judgement. With mindfulness, you can learn to simply observe these thoughts and try not to follow them or get caught up in them. This can help reduce stress and anxiety.
Being mindful may help enhance relationships. In a busy life, you may get distracted during interactions with close friends and family. Being more mindful may help you to connect better with people.
Mindfulness can help manage many mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, addiction and eating disorders. It can also help with anger management.
Mindful eating is a technique that focusses your attention on the experiences of eating and hunger, allowing you to identify eating triggers and reducing the chance of binge eating. Mindful eating can help with weight loss and with some eating disorders.
Mindfulness can help with musculoskeletal conditions and chronic pain. If practised regularly it can help with sleep, mental health and mood.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve the quality of life of people with cancer. It can reduce pain, anxiety, depression and nausea, and also can improve immune function. Many Australian cancer organisations run free mindfulness courses for people with cancer.
Mindfulness can help create a mental environment that is conducive to sleep. It can help when you are having stressful thoughts about not being able to sleep and where you have anxiety about falling asleep.
How to be more mindful
Many individuals and organisations now offer mindfulness training. However, you can start putting mindfulness into practice on your own with a few simple exercises. There are many smartphone apps that can also guide you.
The more you practise, the better you can get and the easier it will be. You can practise little periods of mindfulness throughout your day.
Anytime you find yourself ruminating about the past, or the future, it can be helpful to try to break the pattern by practising some mindfulness, to bring your focus into the present and create some mental space.
Here are a couple of techniques.
- One-minute breathing exercise — Sit with your back straight but relaxed. For the next minute, focus your entire attention on your breathing in and out, how air passes in and out of your nostrils, and how your abdomen rises and goes down with each breath. If thoughts start crowding in, gently let them go and refocus on your breathing.
- Check in with yourself — Bring yourself into the present moment by asking yourself, ‘What is going on with me at the moment?’ You can label your thoughts and feelings — for example, ‘that’s an anxious feeling’ — and let them go. Don’t judge yourself. You may start to feel like more of an observer instead of someone reacting to thoughts and feelings.
- Eat mindfully — When you’re having a meal, focus on your eating. Don’t read or watch TV at the same time. Pay attention to how the food looks, smells and tastes. You may find you enjoy your food more, and stop eating when you’re full instead of automatically finishing what’s on your plate.
Is mindfulness suitable for everyone?
Some doctors believe that mindfulness may not be suitable for people with psychosis. This belief may be based on experiences where especially intensive meditation practices may have caused anxiety or dissociation from reality in people who have psychosis.
Talk to your GP or mental health professional if you have concerns whether mindfulness is suitable for you, especially if you have a serious mental health problem. And if you do experience anxiety or uncomfortable feelings, stop the practice and talk to your doctor.
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Resources and support
Learn how you can introduce mindfulness practice to your life:
- Black Dog Institute provides a factsheet with mindfulness techniques to practise at home.
- Smiling Mind is a free app that helps develop mindfulness skills and can reduce stress.
- Stop, Breath and Think app — ReachOut.com is suitable for young people wishing to manage anxiety through controlled breathing.
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Last reviewed: February 2022