Mindfulness and mental health: why is it important?

A technique that’s growing in popularity, mindfulness is now used to treat a variety of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and addiction.

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This page was clinically reviewed by Christos Papalekas, Counselling Psychologist, CBT & EMDR Psychotherapist at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove, in February 2022.

The concept of mindfulness

Mindfulness involves bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment. The ability to direct attention in this way can be developed through the practice of meditation or other techniques, teaching intentional self-regulation of attention from moment-to-moment. During these moments, you take note of:

  • Your body’s sensations
  • Your senses (the sights, sounds and smells around you)
  • Emotions, cravings and urges

This focus and attention must be done with purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally.

Until recently, mindfulness has been a relatively unfamiliar concept in much of our culture, perhaps because of its origins in Buddhism. The founder of modern day mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created mindfulness-based stress reduction (MCSR) in the late 1970s.

Since then, it’s use has been proven not only as a general stress reducer, but to help with diverse conditions like chronic pain, heart disease, anxiety, psoriasis, sleep problems and mental health issues – often with the help of a practical in-person or online course, therapy, or through books or audio materials.

How does mindfulness work?

Mindfulness is a practical skill, like being able to ride a bike or play the piano. As with all new skills, the more we practise it, the easier it becomes. As we practise mindfulness, we develop neuro-pathways in the brain associated with being mindful, which make it easier to be fully in the present moment.

A commonly used way to get into a 'mindful' state is to simply sit on a chair, close your eyes and begin to focus on your breathing. As you sit still, relaxed, but alert, you direct your attention to the sensation of each inhalation and exhalation, focusing on the gentle rise and fall of your chest or the feeling of air as it enters and leaves your nose.

Meditation, yoga and focusing on your breathing are common techniques for entering a state of mindfulness, but there are a variety of other exercises, such as:

Body scan
Mindful walking
Mindful eating

Body scan

Direct your attention towards your body, slowly taking note of all your body parts – moving from head to toe. As you do, consider the various feelings and sensations you experience in each body part, like tensions, tingles or temperatures.

Mindful walking

When you’re out and about, you can slip into a mindful state by focusing in on your body parts and how they interact with the world around you. Feel the breeze on your skin or the differences in terrain on the soles of your feet. You can take note of smells around you too.

Mindful eating

Food and drink offer plenty of opportunity to practise mindfulness too. Pay attention to what you taste, analysing the different flavours as they interact with your palette. Even with a cup of tea or coffee, you could focus on the temperature, taste and movement of the liquid in your cup.

No matter what technique you adopt, mindfulness asks you to pay attention, accept life in the moment and be aware of things like your emotions and bodily sensations.

Watch: mindfulness meditation

Join our expert therapist, Priory's Adele Burdon-Bailey, as she guides you through a mindfulness meditation exercise.

Mindfulness for mental health

Mindfulness is an emotionally non-reactive state which can enrich our lives. It challenges the idea that we are defective when we are not happy and that we should always control our thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness helps to awaken us to the patterns of the mind rather than emptying the mind. It helps you to be in touch with your way of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It is a concept that is life changing to some.

If we start to think about our thoughts, or get annoyed with ourselves for not being able to retain focus, it stops us paying attention and takes us away from the present moment. If we just acknowledge our thoughts and let them go without judgement, we retain our focus on being in the present moment.

Benefits of using mindfulness

Mindfulness can be used as a tool to manage your day-to-day wellbeing and mental health. You might use it at home or in the office as part of a daily de-stressing routine, or it could be part of treatment for a range of mental health conditions.

In the 1990s, Mark Williams, John Teasdale and Zindel Seagal further developed mindfulness practices to help people suffering from depression, creating mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Since then, mindfulness as type of therapy has been proven to be an effective means of reducing symptoms of a range of mental health and addiction issues. Studies have found:

  • Mindfulness can facilitate emotion regulation on both implicit and explicit levels, making you better able to cope with stress (source)
  • Mindfulness is positively associated with psychological health, and training in mindfulness may bring about positive psychological effects (source)
  • The most consistent beneficial effect for various mindfulness interventions was reported for depression (source)
  • Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) can reduce the consumption of several substances including alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana, cigarettes, and opiates (source)

MBCT is clinically approved in the UK by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a treatment of choice for recurrent depression. Mindfulness training is also a central component of dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), a popular approach to the treatment of borderline personality disorder (BPD) alongside a number of other mental health complications.

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