How does mindfulness work?

In mindfulness you try to become more aware of your thoughts, emotions and physical feelings. This can help you:

  • notice when you get caught up in negative thoughts, so that you can manage them
  • become aware of the effect that thoughts or events have on your body, so that you can look after yourself
  • feel able to make a choice about how you respond to your thoughts and feelings
  • observe that thoughts come and go and do not have to define who you are or your experience of the world

“When I feel anxiety building, mindfulness helps me to keep calm by becoming more in touch with the situation.”

Why do my thoughts affect my feelings?

Our emotions do not automatically distinguish between what we think about the world and what is occurring in reality. For example, if you spend time thinking about unpleasant past events or worrying about future ones, you might feel sad or anxious and experience some of the signs and symptoms of depression or anxiety.

This can lead to more difficult thoughts and feelings, and you could end up feeling worse and worse. Mindfulness aims to help you focus on the present and let go of these thoughts.

Mindfulness uses different terms and ideas to help you become aware of your thoughts and feelings. You might read or hear your instructor talk about:

  • Automatic pilot – this describes those times when we’re not really paying attention to what we do in our daily life. This can be useful, as it allows us to remember and complete routine activities easily; but we can also get caught up in unhelpful thoughts and reactions when we are ‘on auto pilot’. Mindfulness encourages you to pay more attention when doing everyday tasks such as eating, showering or walking somewhere.
  • Doing mode and being mode – these are two ways of thinking. ‘Doing mode’ is when you are constantly busy and responding to demands around you. This helps you to solve problems and achieve goals but it can also leave you feeling stressed and anxious. Mindfulness tries to help you develop a different way of thinking, called ‘being mode’, where you’re happy to accept things just as they are and not put too much pressure on yourself.
  • Acceptance – in mindfulness this means paying attention to difficult feelings without judging yourself or trying to find a solution straight away, you are just accepting them as they are. Accepting your difficult feelings doesn’t mean putting up with bad situations – it means paying attention to your feelings and seeing if they pass or if there’s something you can do to feel better.

“On the worst days [I get] the temptation to withdraw further, but mindfulness teaches you to accept that it is as it is that day.”

How does the theory work in practice?

Mindfulness uses various techniques and exercises to help you apply these ideas, usually focusing on your body and your breathing. This aims to help you:

  • Create space between you and a stressful situation, and choose how to respond. For example, if you’re in a stressful situation and feel overwhelmed with negative thoughts, you can stop and focus your attention on your breathing or notice the sensations of your feet on the floor. This can help you take a step back from the negative thoughts and observe them with more objectivity.
  • Detect negative emotions and look after yourself before the feelings get worse. For example, tension or anxiety is usually felt in certain areas of your body, such as your heart beating faster, muscles tensing or as shallow breathing. If you notice this, you can take steps to help look after yourself.

“Sometimes when I get the urge to binge, using a mindfulness technique can give me enough thinking space to stop myself.”

See the section “Can I practice mindfulness by myself” for more information on putting theory into practice.

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