Mindfulness – keeping calm during difficulty

Hello, I’m Ashley Lodge and I’m responsible
for Pearson’s Mindfulness Programme. The aim of this video is to give you a quick introduction
to Mindfulness with a focus on how it can help us during uncertain or difficult situations.
So what exactly is mindfulness? The best definition I tend to use is that of Jon Kabat-Zinn one
the major figures in introducing western audiences to practices that have their origins in the
East. He calls it: “… paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present
moment, and non-judgmentally.” Unpacking those three things:
Purpose: we need to be clear about our intention – to use mindfulness to create a sense of
calm and peace, of focus and attention. Present Moment: We can only live in the present
moment because the past is done and the future is yet to come.
Judgementality: we constantly make judgements about all the information coming to us on
a moment to moment basis to see whether it’s a threat to us. The trouble with doing this
is that it can often lead us to creating false stories about the information. Being non-judgemental
helps stop this. So Mindfulness is essentially about awareness.
It is about training our attention to notice our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and anything
around us that is happening right now, without judging them. By doing this, we step away
from automatic responses and observe what it means to be in the present with an open
mind. This can help us to be calmer and make better, more skillful decisions. At the same
time as developing awareness we are also cultivating a sense of kindness and compassion to ourselves.
Mindfulness isn’t just about training the mind – it’s also about reconnecting with
the body, the emotions and our behaviour. Emotions and feelings can affect the body
and our actions, and vice versa. Just as thinking can cause physical reactions (for example,
feeling anxious can cause ‘butterflies’ in the stomach), so our bodies can affect
our thinking. We often forget how much subtle tension we’re holding in our shoulders and
neck for example. Mindfulness helps us stop analysing emotions
and emotional problems and instead sense them more easily when they start. By becoming aware
of emotions, we can try to deal with them before they grow too strong or start to take
over our thinking. Mindfulness can help us understand better when our own stress and
anxiety starts to kick in and can help calm those feelings (through simple exercises such
as focusing on the breath) before they start to affect us in more negative ways.
What we’ve been learning in recent years from neuroscience is how mindfulness can help
rewire our brains to work in better, calmer, more positive ways. For example, people who
are worriers tend to have more neural activity in the area around the amygdala which sits
in the middle of the brain in the part which houses the limbic system. This is the bit
of the brain which is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response which has helped
us as a species survive from when our prehistoric ancestors spotted a predator such as sabre-toothed
tigers and helped ensure they didn’t end up as their lunch.
The response would release cortisol and adrenaline into our ancestors’ bodies to get them ready
to escape. Luckily for us encountering a predator is rare nowadays but we can still encounter
the same ‘fight or flight’ response when we experience stress or anxiety. An example
of this is how we react to a perceived threat or issue such as Coronavirus. The same fear
response kicks in, as part of our survival mechanism and cortisol and adrenaline are
released into the system causing the heart rate to go up, making us feel jittery and
a bit sweaty. This can leave us feeling uneasy and panicky. Yet these are the very times
when it’s important for us to create, as best we can, a sense of calm which can help
us respond in wiser, more rational, less panicky ways.
The good news is that we also have a part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, associated
with calmer, wiser behaviours. This is also connected with focus, emotional regulation
and cognitive flexibility. We can now use fMRI to scan people’s brains to see how
after a mindfulness course the neural activity around the bit of the brain associated with
stress, the amygdala, is reduced and activity within the part of the brain associated with
calm increases in the prefrontal cortex. We believe what is effectively happening is a
rewiring of the brain increasing the neural connections and density of the grey matter
in that part of the brain. We call this phenomenon neuroplasticity.
Mindfulness can help us stay calm as it creates a pause whereby we can listen to the body,
feel as the stress response starts and then offers us ways to return to a sense of calm
through connecting back to the sensations of the breath and body.
Very often, it is easy to want to spring straight into action when we perceive a threat or issue.
This is called doing mode – it helps us to get things done in response to difficult
news or situations, but doesn’t always consider the wisest, calmest way of tackling the task
or situation. Mindfulness helps by giving us a moment to
pause and enter being mode. This allows time for us to ground yourselves and be fully focused
on the present moment, so we experience things more fully. Usually this will help us to take
a calmer and wiser approach to a situation, which will mean we’re more effective at
dealing with them and improves our own mental health and wellbeing during difficult times.
When we take time to slow down and live in a more moment-to-moment way, we are able to
experience life more fully and appreciatively even when there are difficult things going
on in the world. This can then help to create a greater sense of calm.
Mindfulness can also help us accept how things are right here and now rather than striving
for them to be different. When things are out of our control then accepting what we
can or can’t easily change takes away the artificial pressure we can often create for
ourselves. This then allows us to be kinder to ourselves and find new ways to being okay
with whatever is happening in the present. Looking after our mental health and wellbeing
during difficult times is essential. Just like learning any new skill or developing
any new habit, mindfulness is something that has to be practised daily to have richer benefits.
Doing daily practices of 10 minutes or so can really help us to move our awareness to
be fully in the present moment in a non-judgemental way, helping us to avoid overthinking, which
can lead to worry, anxiety and stress. I hope this video has given you a helpful
introduction to mindfulness and how it can help keep us calm and focused when we encounter
difficulty. Looking after our own mental health in such times is just as important as looking
after our physical health too. To accompany this video there is an audio
file of the guided breath and body practice which provides an excellent introduction to
mindfulness and the kind of practices we do. Anyone can use this but please remember if
you’re currently undertaking any counselling or therapy for more serious issues you may
be dealing with please always check with your clinician first.

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