A woman leaning over a steaming cup of tea

Mindfulness Explained, and Why People Keep Nagging You To Do It

I know. You may be reading this thinking, ‘not another blog about mindfulness’, or ‘it just doesn’t work for me!’. Well my friend, you’re not alone. I remember the first time someone told me that I should start practicing mindfulness. ‘Pfft’, I responded, ‘that’s not going to help me’. And I promise, I did everything I could to discount the increasing evidence of it’s benefits, I didn’t want to sit down with my thoughts and quiet my mind. It seemed like a waste of time at best, scary or terrifying even, at worst.

The truth is, I didn’t believe in mindfulness back then, and I think part of the problem was not really understanding what it was all about, or having someone support me to make the practice accessible for my unique needs. I was instead, approaching it from a space of disdain for all the news suggesting that ‘mindful colouring will fix your anxiety!’ (having tried doing some colouring once in front of the TV, and ending up more frustrated at myself for having coloured outside of the lines). In other words, mindfulness seemed to be yet another fad, an unattainable dream-state of no thoughts and no worries.

I’m here, as a reformed mindfulness lover, to help you understand what mindfulness is actually all about. I’m here to explain the scientific evidence behind the benefits, and to better understand why your psychologist so annoyingly keeps suggesting it for you in sessions. To help you to see that although mindfulness can indeed be effortful to begin with, and sometimes even scary, it’s something that can be tailored to suit your unique, individual circumstances and preferences. It’s something that, with the right support, can be approached slowly and gradually and in ways that are less terrifying. Sure, colouring might be part of it, but it doesn’t have to be.

The origins of mindfulness, and why mindfulness matters

Mindfulness is not a new concept. It has been practiced within various religious and secular communities for centuries. It’s roots tend to be traced back to early Buddhist and Hindu traditions, with the term mindfulness said to have been derived from the Buddhist concept of ‘Sati’ meaning awareness and presence of mind. Mindfulness made it’s way from the East to the West much more recently around the 1970s, with the help of professor and researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn studied buddhism and developed his own Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program which proved to be extremely helpful for reducing participants’ stress.

Many promising and evidence-based mindfulness-based therapies, such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), have since been developed drawing from the principles of Kabat-Zinn’s initial stress-reduction program. There is significant evidence in the research to suggest that mindfulness, when practiced regularly, can not only help to reduce general stress levels, but also can help reduce rumination (over-thinking and excessive worry thoughts) and anxiety, decrease emotional reactivity, allow us more flexibility in how we think and respond to difficult situations, increase positive feelings, enhance focus and memory abilities, increase satisfaction in our relationships, as well as boost our immune function.

How does mindfulness work?

Mindfulness works in a few different ways. When we are caught up in thoughts, memories or images of the past, future, to-do lists, or what-ifs, it often doesn’t feel very nice. We might then even get caught up in feeling worried or stressed, about feeling worried or stressed in the first place! Emotions upon emotions upon emotions. And when our brains become hijacked by emotions, it’s very difficult to access that logical part of our brain which we know is there, and wish could have spoken up earlier (ideally before we spiked up at our partner about eating the last of the cheese… though, cheese is a hot commodity). Mindfulness slows down the frequency of our brainwaves, and essentially allows us greater access to our thinking-brain, so we can approach situations with a clearer and more level perspective, with more empathy, understanding, and greater balance between emotion- and logic-based reason.

In the long-term, regular mindfulness practices have also been shown to increase grey-matter density in the brain, which is responsible for a whole host of executive functions including but not limited to focus and attention, problem-solving, and regulating emotions. Even the amygdala, the part of our brains involved in experiences of anxiety and stress, appears to shrink with regular mindfulness meditation (this is a good thing!).

What is mindfulness, and how do I start?

So what is this magical thing called mindfulness really all about? Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, our thoughts, feelings and experiences, without judgements or criticism. It’s important, I believe, to emphasise the word ‘practice’. We don’t have to be able to clear our minds of all thoughts – that would be very difficult and is not actually necessary to gain the benefits of mindfulness! So, it’s time to throw away those ideas about not being ‘good’ at mindfulness because you couldn’t stop thinking. I’d say, if you were able to notice your mind chattering, you’ve actually done a great job! Every time we notice our mind wandering again, we’ve done it again – we’ve strengthened our minfulness muscles! Perhaps you can even notice right now any thoughts you’re having about this article, perhaps something like ‘I know Beth, but I’ve tried meditating and it just doesn’t work for me!’

Although meditation is an excellent way to practice mindfulness, it is by no means the only way. If sitting with your thoughts is a little too much for right now, that’s absolutely okay. It’s very normal for people to find meditation nerve-wracking, and sometimes even anxiety-inducing, particularly if you have a history of difficult past events or trauma. If this is the case, please speak to your care providers about how they can tailor mindfulness exercises to support your needs and preferences. And in the meantime, perhaps you could have a go at taking a little more notice of the sensation of the warm water on your hands while washing the dishes. Maybe you could try to tune into how the ground feels beneath your feet as you sit here reading this blog, starting at the heel, moving to the ball of the foot, to each of your toes – can you notice the feelings without any judgements of ‘bad’ or ‘good’?. Or maybe you see what it’s like to listen to that song you like, or watch that TV show, without simultaneously texting someone on your phone for 30 seconds, noticing the urge to pick up your phone and then seeing if you can refocus your attention on the tune or the content of the show. These are all examples of practicing mindfulness, and ways that can feel a little more approachable, less vulnerable, and less scary than diving straight into a deep meditation practice.

Mindfulness requires practice

It absolutely can be tricky practicing noticing when we get caught up in our thoughts, images or feelings when first starting out, but I can promise you it gets easier with consistent practice. And the more we practice, the stronger our mindfulness muscles will be. We wouldn’t run a marathon without training for it, and neither should we expect ourselves to be able to use mindfulness to immediately feel better in a time of significant stress if we haven’t practiced it (although sometimes we can get lucky!). Practicing mindfulness means that we are able to notice when we’re getting caught up in unhelpful thoughts or feelings of overwhelm, and be more present. By noticing our experiences in this way, we are more likely to be able to respond to difficult situations with a greater consideration of what we actually need or want. We are able to act with intention, rather than reacting.

What’s it all mean in everyday life?

What this means in real life? It means we might be better placed to notice our frustration when the cat has peed on the floor again, determine if we need a 5 minute breather before cleaning up the mess, and then head out to see our friends without feeling as though our furry friend has completely ruined the day. It means that when we have a bad day at work, we might be better able to ground ourselves in the present moment back at home, no longer at work, and properly consider what we need from our loved ones to support us in winding down (rather than yelling at them for asking what we want for dinner). Practicing mindfulness might even help us notice better when we’re feeling grumpy, or when we’re just hungry.

Mindfulness gives us the space to be able to mindfully and thoughtfully respond to ourselves and others with a clearer mind, and this often means also with a little more kindness and understanding, which I think we can all agree is something that most of us would benefit from.

And, perhaps most importantly, mindfulness can mean that we’re able to really experience all that life has to offer, all it’s ups and downs. We can start to really appreciate with a new perspective, the warmth of our niece and nephew’s hugs, all the different colours of flora and fauna in our neighbour’s garden, and the taste of a fresh coffee. We might be able to actually remember what happened in the movie we watched last night and chat about it with our friends. Being present, honestly, really rocks. So get outside and feel the grass beneath your feet for 15 seconds before putting your shoes on for school, take a minute to feel the steam of your cup of tea on your face before taking a sip, and try to put your phone away in your bag when you’re on your next date. It’s all practice, and you might just notice more than you realized.

Some final notes and resources…


For a 1 minute summary of mindfulness, see this video by SmilingMind.

It you’ve always wanted to try mindfulness but think you need a more tailored approach, reach out to a psychologist, mindfulness practitioner, trauma-informed yoga teacher, or anyone else that understands the intricacies of mindfulness meditation. It might be that mindfulness is better suited to later in your journey.

If you think you’re ready to jump right in, you might like to try apps like Headspace, InsightTimer or SmilingMind.