What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.

Mindfulness also involves acceptance: paying attention to our habitual thoughts, our feelings and emotional patterns without judging them, or believing that there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think or feel in a particular moment. Being able to observe rather than react to those patterns can really help to manage stress and enhance our sense of well-being.

When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than revisiting the past or imagining what might happen in the future.

Though it has its roots in Buddhist meditation, a secular practice of mindfulness has entered the mainstream in recent years, in part through the work of Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme and Professor Mark Williams, of Oxford University’s Cognitive Therapy Centre.

The NHS, the Mental Health Foundation and the National Institute of Clinical Excellence recommend mindfulness as a way to treat depression, anxiety, stress and pain.

NHS Mindfulness webpage.

Mental Health Foundation Mindfulness webpage.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is the founding director of its renowned Stress Reduction Clinic and Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He teaches mindfulness and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in various venues around the world. Here he defines mindfulness.

What are the benefits of Mindfulness?

There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the positive effects of mindfulness.

• Mindfulness meditation has been shown to affect how the brain works and even its structure.

• People undertaking mindfulness training have shown increased activity in the area of the brain associated with positive emotion – the pre-frontal cortex – which is generally less active in people who are depressed.

• More than 100 studies have shown changes in brain wave activity during meditation and researchers have found that areas of the brain linked to emotional regulation are larger in people who have meditated regularly for five years.

• Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy can, on average, reduce the risk of relapse for people who experience recurrent depression by more than 40%

• Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has been developed and studied since the 1970s for its impact on mental health, producing reductions in anxiety (by 58%) and stress (40%)

• Individuals with “problematic” levels of stress found significant improvement in perceived levels of stress over a mindfulness course.

• Mindfulness learning is a cost-effective and accessible treatment for individuals. (Source: The Mental Health Foundation)

Professor Mark Williams from Oxford University's Cognitive Therapy Centre is one of the main contributors to Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy research for depression and implementation. He is also the co-author of the workbook that accompanies our 8-week courses. Here he introduces mindfulness.