If you find yourself in a counselling setting, whether you are a client or a counsellor, you have likely heard of or practiced mindfulness. Counsellors often recommend and teach mindfulness to their clients. Not only do clients find it helpful, but counsellors also regularly practice it in their personal capacity. With this article, the writer would like to introduce those not yet familiar with mindfulness to it and its usefulness in both the counselling room and dealing with life in general.

There is some debate regarding the precise definition of mindfulness, but most explanations revolve around the definition proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (2016). Mindfulness, therefore, is when a person makes a purposeful effort to pay attention to any physiological or psychological experiences they have in the present moment.

Considering experiences “non-judgmentally” refers to the idea that the immediate “goodness” or “badness” of a feeling or sensation is not determined; rather, the sensation itself is recognized in the moment. Evaluation of sensations follows from a deeper consideration of those sensations. Say, for example, you start crying after a disagreement with your employer. You become mindful of your crying, your tense shoulders, and your embarrassment. Whether or not your reaction is “good” is irrelevant in the moment. As you calm down and have time to evaluate the situation, you may determine that crying was an appropriate or inappropriate response. Depending on this evaluation, you will decide on further action steps.

You might be wondering what the difference is between mindfulness and meditation. The two are related, and some use the words interchangeably, but they are different actions. Meditation is a practice that requires a person, for a certain period, to be mindful; to breathe in a certain way; and to remain in a certain position. Depending on the type of meditation, a person might chant a sound, focus on an object, or allow their mind to wander to questions. In short, meditation is a practice that uses mindfulness to complete. Mindfulness is a quality that a person employs in their daily life to check in with their inner world.

There are many exercises and techniques one can do daily to become more mindful. Here are a few examples: Make the effort to pay attention to the food you are consuming, the smell, texture, and taste. Or take three minutes to focus on nothing other than your breathing and bodily sensations. Or sit with a bowl of water, some soap, and a dry cloth. Wash your hands, focusing on the sensation of handwashing; the feel of the water; the smell of the soap; and the texture of the cloth.

Now that we know what mindfulness is, let’s consider its benefits. Mindfulness is a fast-growing and expanding interest in the field of mental health research. In both qualitative and quantitative research, mindfulness (on its own or as part of a treatment plan) has been shown to promote neural and behavioral changes. These changes began to occur within two months of consistent incorporation of mindfulness into daily living. Therefore, with consistent use, mindfulness affects the way a person behaves or reacts, as well as the physical structure and functioning of a person’s brain.

Studies have found mindfulness effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, and effective in increasing memory, reaction time, job performance, and attention. Mindfulness has been found to be useful in treating various mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia-spectrum disorders, eating disorders, anger dysregulation, and pathological gambling. Studies among healthy older adults have shown that mindfulness has the potential to slow down the normal neural and cognitive decline associated with aging. Studies with people struggling with substance dependencies found that mindfulness reduces the risk of relapse as well as impacts the reward system of the brain – reducing the reward gained from substances and increasing the reward gained from other, healthier experiences.

When we become mindful, we give our prefrontal cortex time to catch up with our limbic system, more specifically our amygdala. Our prefrontal cortex is the front part of our brain responsible for logical thinking, self-control, and making decisions. Our limbic system is associated with motivation and emotions, while the amygdala is responsible for our fight-or-flight response. While the prefrontal cortex is used for logically evaluating events, the amygdala responds based on associations or learned behavior. A person who grew up in a violent environment, for example, might be on high alert whenever they hear shouting, regardless of whether that shouting is directed towards them.

The response fired off by the amygdala is almost instantaneous, illogical at times, and automatic; in contrast, the prefrontal cortex is relatively slow to process information – requiring deliberate effort and careful consideration.

When we become mindful, we may take note of a heightened sense of agitation in response to a shout. We might notice our need to panic and hide. We might then notice our shallow breathing and sweaty palms. By this time, we have given our prefrontal cortex time to catch up with our amygdala wanting to run away. Our prefrontal cortex starts considering information. We might then realize that we are not the ones being shouted at; that someone is excitedly celebrating because they won some money; we begin to think logically and take a deep breath.

Of course, it is not always as easy and as quick as the simplistic example just given, but research has shown that with time, our brain structures not only change to facilitate less anxiety, for example, but also to facilitate quicker movement from a non-mindful state to a mindful state.

In the beginning, irrespective of the mindfulness technique you employ, it will be a deliberate effort and concentration to keep your mind in the moment and not let it wander. But with practice comes progress and so, in time, mindfulness becomes less effortful and more rewarding. And that is the writer’s hope for you, that you will start, continue, and then benefit from mindfulness.

Author: Rouxlé Stroebel

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