There's been a lot of talk about mindfulness lately. People seem to be recommending it for everything - from stress-relief to self-harm reduction. What is it really, and in what situations should it be used?
Mindfulness is conscious awareness of what is happening in the moment. Sounds pretty simple, but it gets a little more complex. It can be awareness of the physical sensations you are experiencing. It can be awareness of your emotions. It can be awareness of your attitudes.
I think mindfulness is definitely a tool that can help a lot of people, but I fear that service providers may be blindly prescribing it without thinking carefully about how it should be used. I have heard health care providers state that we should work on being more mindful during all our everyday tasks.
When I am washing the dishes, I do not want to be conscious of the experience. I would much rather daydream about my next vacation. Is that a bad thing?
Here are some ways mindfulness can be used:
1. As a form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). It is helpful if a person replaces negative thoughts with mindfulness of what he or she is experiencing. Negative thoughts definitely have a way of spiraling out of control, and mindfulness seems to be a nice, concrete way of stopping them.
If I were thinking negative thoughts while doing dishes, then mindfulness would be a good strategy for me to use. However, I do not not think I need to replace positive thoughts with mindfulness, and I do not see anything wrong with using my brain to plan for the future while I am doing a routine task.
2. Mindfulness can also be used as a form of meditation, which so many people find helpful.
3. I have also heard of it being used to develop awareness and acceptance of negative emotions. I think that when we really pay attention to what is happening inside of us, it can help develop insight into why we do the things we do. This can be helpful if we want to change our behavior patterns.
I think another important component of mindfulness is occupational engagement (see reference below). If you are sitting at home not doing anything, mindfulness might not be a pleasant experience. However, mindfulness can be wonderful when you are engaged in a meaningful occupation. I personally make an effort to be mindful when I am playing with my kids.
Unfortunately, the evidence is still a little sketchy on mindfulness. It does seem to have a positive effect in some situations, but there is still a lack of quality research on the specifics. In the meantime, I think we just really need to think about what purpose we are recommending mindfulness for.
Are there other helpful ways of using mindfulness? I would love to hear your experiences. Maybe you like washing the dishes mindfully :)
Reid, D. (2011). Mindfulness and Flow in Occupational Engagement: Presence in doing. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 78(1), 50-56.