‘I never succeed at interviews…no-one is listening to my presentation…I’m not going to do well at this exam.’ If you have experienced these unhelpful and negative thoughts, mindfulness may help you to adopt a positive approach which can help you succeed in these potentially stressful situations.
Mindfulness is becoming increasingly prominent as a technique to cope with depression, anxiety and to generally improve mental health. Essentially it is a form of meditation with an emphasis on the breath, to live in the moment and adopt a more balanced, rational perspective.
Dean Howes has been practising mindfulness for over 15 years and teaching it at the University of Warwick for 8 years. He also works with trainee teachers and trainee social workers to help build resilience, well-being and balance. In this blog he explains how to become mindful and how powerful this approach can be.
What is mindfulness?
It is a modern, Western and secular approach that has associated practices and techniques that have been shown to have a range of health, well-being and performance benefits. Whilst having roots in ancient wisdom traditions (in particular Buddhism), the modern format of mindfulness was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979. He taught the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme that has become the template model for mindfulness courses. In this course learners explore the social, environmental, biological, psychological and emotional underpinnings of stress and cultivate a series of mindful attitudes through foundational meditation-based practices.
If we let go of agendas and are accepting, gentle, patient and considered we can bring these qualities to any present-moment experience. We are able to check our habitual responses and be mindful enough to choose a different response if necessary. The foundational practices of mindfulness include mindful breathing, the body scan and longer meditations in which we learn to accept unwanted thoughts but navigate beyond them without having a negative mind, body or emotional response to them.
The benefits of mindfulness
Having worked with people at all levels of education and outside of education I can testify to the trans-formative power of mindfulness. For some this has been in the navigating of a clinical problem (such as anxiety or depression), whilst for others it has been in the navigating of the everyday struggles of life, study and/or work. Research has shown that mindfulness helps to grow many aspects of our being and that these have benefits in many different areas. For example, research by Shapiro, Brown and Austin in 2011 showed that mindfulness had significant benefits for students in the areas of ‘cognitive and academic performance’, ‘mental health and psychological well-being’ and ‘development of the whole person’.
One of the most powerful elements of mindfulness is that it not only allows us to work upon our problematic mind, body and emotional responses, but also allows us to fully engage with moments that are positive. The links between allowing ourselves to be fully present in positive moments and health, well-being and performance are becoming clearer with increasing empirical research in this area (Davidson and Schulyer, 2015). Many people I have taught or worked with report that they are able to be present in and appreciate positive moments much more. This is particularly useful when using mindfulness for performance purposes and is linked to the concept of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
What happens when you are mindful?
Mindfulness is a capacity that we all have and experience at different moments. To become more mindful we need to engage in structured practices (meditative or non-meditative) in which we bring our attention and the attitudes of mindfulness to our present-moment experience. Research has shown that changes to the brain can be seen after 8-weeks of practice consisting of a minimum of 10-minutes per day.
In my experience, learners of mindfulness usually report experiencing noticeable changes in their levels of mindfulness and associate benefits after around 2 or 3 weeks. Once we begin to notice such changes it often gives us more motivation to continue our practices. Although it is difficult to describe, we know that we are being more mindful when we have greater presence, clarity and control over our responses in a given situation. People often report feeling deeper emotions and being able to express themselves in a more authentic and confident way.
Coping with a stressful situation by being mindful
Whilst the general practice of mindfulness can have a range of benefits for people, there are also many techniques that can be applied to specific situations. For example, just prior to an exam, presentation, interview or performance a person may engage in mindful breathing and a mini-body scan. Both of these are quick and no-one knows what you are doing. They may also try to engage fully with neutral things that are around them to move the mind away from the anxiety-producing event or stimuli. If they have cultivated navigating away from unwanted thoughts from previous practice they will find that they are more able to do this even in highly pressured situations.
As we are often working against some of our deepest habitual responses (stress, anxiety, fear, catastrophic thinking, fight/flight response, etc.), regular practice in safe environments is essential to build up the capacity to be mindful in the stresses of everyday life. If you are a student at the university of Warwick you can find out more about Mindfulness sessions at ‘study happy’ , drop-in sessions take place in the university library during term time every Wednesday at 1.00pm. You can also access the ‘Mindful Library’ resources on Moodle.