One of my dad’s friends, a stressed out father of three once said to me, ‘life throws you one wild card – and that’s university.’ Indeed, the vast majority of us launch ourselves into fresher’s week with the expectation that the three years ahead of us will be the best of our lives. However, in recent years, anxiety, depression and excessive stress have become frighteningly common amongst students. Instead spending our university years revelling in hedonistic youth, further education is fast becoming a hot bed for the development of mental illness.
In the face of this crisis, medical professionals have been considering how ideas embedded within foreign cultures could help patients suffering from mental health problems. The practices which have emerged are commonly referred to as ‘complementary medicine’.
Mindfulness is a practice which derives from 2500 years of Buddhist teaching and psychology. It has been gradually working its way into western society since around the 1970s. Yoga and meditation are now hugely popular and have grown to become multi-million pound industries. Oprah Winfrey even went as far as to make meditation a compulsory part of the working day for all of her employees.
Meditation, it seems has become trendy in the field of British politics; Nick Clegg, the man all students love to hate, told The Times that meditation is ‘extremely useful for dealing with the ordinary stresses of life’. He is joined by former foreign secretary William Hague, who has practiced meditation for over thirty years.
“Engaging in daily meditation has been scientifically proven to lower blood pressure; reduce anxiety, stress and irritability”
The Beatles legend Sir Paul McCartney also features in the trope of famous meditators, saying that, ‘in moments of madness meditation has helped me find moments of serenity – and I would like to think that it would help provide young people a quiet haven in a not so quiet world’.
Celebrity prestige aside, engaging in daily meditation has been scientifically proven to lower blood pressure; reduce anxiety, stress and irritability and to improve memory, concentration and a person’s capability to multi task. If anything, it can improve your ability to slurp coffee, refresh Facebook and hold a whispered conversation in the silent section while ‘revising’.
However, meditation is only one aspect of mindfulness. Engaging with the practice involves an overhaul of the way that we think and experience our daily lives. Pete Anderson, a mindfulness practitioner based in Nottingham, summarises it as, “a vibrant engagement with the uniqueness of human life”.
“On the most basic level, mindfulness is about learning to live in the present moment”
On the most basic level, mindfulness is about learning to live in the present moment. We often make ourselves anxious by worrying about an imagined future or make ourselves sad and depressed by dwelling on the past. If we pay greater attention to what is going on right now we can realise that our thoughts are not real things. The worry and sadness that, at times, consumes our thoughts is not actually affecting us at this moment in time. Therefore, we are able to feel less weighed down by the negative things that we think about. As such, by becoming more mindful we gain a better perspective on situations.
The ability to live in the present is achieved by an increased awareness of what is happening around us. In the same way that children get excited by the most trivial and insignificant things, we too can be uplifted by noticing the beauty in everyday experiences. In doing this, we can find enjoyment in the simple, mundane and even stereotypically ‘boring’ parts of our daily routine. This could be something as simple as noticing the refreshing feeling of the rain on your face, rather than instinctively putting your bag on your head, cursing the British weather and reflecting on how this miserable rainy day is clearly pathetic fallacy of your entire, tragic life.
As well as consciously noticing what is happening in the environment around us, mindfulness also advocates paying closer attention to our bodies. Pete Anderson explains, “mindfulness is about connecting with and understanding the whole of ourselves – rather than seeing ourselves as our thoughts. We realise we are a body, emotions and a mind all interconnected and influencing each other. Our body is constantly sending us messages, we talk about gut instinct for example – our gut is sometimes referred to as our second brain, as it has a similar number of white ‘brain’ cells as a cat’s brain does. If we can start to pay attention to the messages our body is giving us, we start to make choices that are healthier for it”.
“Mindfulness is increasingly being recognised as a potential method of tackling the mental health crisis amongst young people in Britain”
Mindfulness is increasingly being recognised as a potential method of tackling the mental health crisis amongst young people in Britain. A Buddhist monk recently attended the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos to lecture our current world leaders on the practice of mindfulness. This reflects the large current of influential figures who are coming to recognise the potential benefits that the teaching of mindfulness could have in British society.
Mindfulness is currently used within the NHS to treat depression, stress and anxiety, with studies showing that it is at least as effective as a course of antidepressants for combatting mental illness and there’s a 50% lower chance of relapse. A nineteen-year study demonstrated that practicing mindfulness lead to a 25% reduction in mortality rate, a 30% reduction in heart disease and a 49% reduction in cancer rates.
The figures speak for themselves, though this does not mean that the act of practicing mindfulness is, in itself, an antioxidant and a substitute for cardiac medication. It seems more likely that these numbers are reflective of the way in which mindfulness boosts happiness and makes people better able cope with the pressures of everyday life. As a result, they are more likely to nourish themselves by eating healthily, exercising more and making better lifestyle choices.
If you can put aside your preconceptions, there are real benefits to practicing mindfulness or even just meditating on a regular basis. You don’t have to be a member of the ‘washed-up hippy’ club and you don’t have to give away all your earthly possessions to pursue a life of spiritual enlightenment. Mindfulness is simply about learning how to squeeze more happiness from the life that you already have.
If you are interested in finding out more about mindfulness there is information available on the NHS website. Alternatively, if you want to find out about mindfulness courses based in Nottingham you can visit Authentic Health at http://www.authentichealth.co.uk/
Image:Nickolai Kashirin via Flickr