Why Doctors Are Prescribing Mindfulness by Alison Runham

Mindfulness has gone from a buzzword to a therapy increasingly prescribed by doctors. So what’s it all about?

Mindfulness is…

  • Increasing your awareness of what’s going on inside and outside yourself in a particular moment – both physical sensations and emotions.
  • Stopping to really notice what you’re thinking and feeling and what sparked these thoughts and emotions.

How it can help

Today, many of us rush through our days, reacting ‘off the cuff’ and missing opportunities to take a breath and appreciate what’s around us. Mindfulness means taking a step back to examine what’s going on rather than just reacting.

“It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives,” says Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

By becoming more aware of your thoughts and feelings, you can recognise signs of stress and anxiety earlier and begin to see patterns, recognising those that aren’t helpful. This can make it easier to prevent them overwhelming you or leading you into a spiral of negative emotions or actions that make the situation worse.

We can all benefit from mindfulness, but it’s now officially recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to prevent depression in people who’ve had three or more bouts, and is increasingly recommended by doctors for helping with chronic conditions or pain, as well as stress, anxiety or depression. There’s emerging evidence that it can ease insomnia, too.

Practising Mindfulness

The NHS recommends:

Noticing the everyday and trying something new: notice the details of what’s going on around you and try a different seat or going somewhere new for lunch to see things in a new way.

Watching and naming your thoughts and feelings: “Mindfulness isn’t about making these thoughts go away, but rather about seeing them as mental events,” says Dr Williams. “Imagine standing at a bus station and seeing ‘thought buses’ coming and going without having to get on them and be taken away. This can be very hard at first, but with gentle persistence it is possible.”

Identify them: “That’s my worry about my Dad’s health.” “I’m stressed because I’ve got a really busy week.” By being aware of your fears and concerns, you’re more likely to recognise when you’re letting them grow disproportionately to the thing they’re about.

Freeing yourself from the past and future: realising that worries about the past or future can dominate, stopping you from enjoying the now. If you realise you’ve been reliving or pre-living negative experiences for several minutes, take a moment to focus yourself in the present, appreciating the day and the moment you’re living now.

Taking time out: ideally having more formal, longer mindfulness sessions, focusing on your breathing and your body and bringing your attention back whenever your mind wanders. This could be at home or while travelling. Find the time and place most convenient and helpful for you.

The NHS recommends the Mental Health Foundation’s online mindfulness course which can be found at www.bemindfulonline.com, or you can find a local teacher at bemindful.co.uk/learn-mindfulness.