Our brains have less capacity when they are under stress. When we are overwhelmed by emotions it is much more difficult to focus on the task at hand. This is the case whether we are a child in a classroom worrying about what will happen at break time, or whether we are an adult struggling to concentrate at work.
There is a growing body of evidence that our emotional experiences can be stored in our bodies so that, even though we may not consciously remember the first time that our guts knotted in a negative experience, our bodies remember and respond accordingly when we feel under threat. This can become our way of being as feeling stressed leaves our bodies feeling under threat.
Mindfulness is described as a state of active, open attention on the present. It allows us to step out of the thoughts which contribute to the stresses we feel.
Mindfulness is rooted in neuroscience. Science has shown that our brains have the ability to change throughout our lives? We each have the innate ability to create new neural pathways in our brains and to change what may have become fixed ways of thinking and responding to certain situations in our lives. Practicing mindfulness calms down the sympathetic nervous system so that you are less likely to be thrown into a state of fight or flight.
Mindfulness has been shown to have a positive affect on stress-related symptoms such as depression and chronic pain. It can have positive effects on physical health, including improvements to the immune response, blood pressure and cortisol levels.
Please note that mindfulness is not necessarily always helpful. If you have a history of trauma mindfulness may not be appropriate. Please see Trauma
Wellbeing and How We Can Help Ourselves
Dr Richard Davidson PhD states that there are four constituents of wellbeing and each is represented by different circuits in the brain. You are able to change each part because each is subject to neuroplasticity.
Awareness – To be distracted by free-flowing thoughts can be toxic to our wellbeing. That feeling when one worry runs into another and spirals, affecting our mood, our focus, and our ability to sleep: feeling stressed. Practising mindfulness can help you learn to shift your focus from the thoughts to something else, like your breathing. It allows you to move out of the thought cascade into the present moment and then back again so that you learn to see that your thoughts are in fact, just thoughts and not necessarily reality.
Coming to counselling can help you to explore those thoughts and worries in a safe place and help you to place them into context.
Connection – Emotions like kindness, compassion and gratitude are the glue which allow us to build interpersonal relationships. It is possible to use gratitude practices to create change in the part of the brain which represents connectivity.
For some of us, it is hard to feel truly connected because of feelings we may carry of shame and self-doubt. We may believe that if others really knew us, they would not care about us. I believe that within the counselling relationship trust is fundamental to change. To share your life story with another requires a massive leap of faith. I aim to offer you a real connection and safe relationship in which to explore how life is and has been for you.
Insight – Insight to be able to explore the story we tell ourselves about who we are. From being young children we build an idea of who we think we are based upon what has happened in our lives and what people have said and done towards us. These thoughts and ideas create a self-narrative which can cause us massive suffering and which can affect not just our mental and emotional health but also our physical health. Sometimes it is hard to see that our thoughts are in fact just thoughts like any others that we can challenge or choose to step out of.
Counselling offers you a place where you can gently challenge the thoughts and beliefs you may be holding and where you can learn to see yourself with kinder eyes.
Purpose – Identifying that we have a purpose is fundamental to our well-being. To feel worthless can be to feel hopeless. There are clear studies which show the impact a lack of purpose can have on physical health as we grow older. There are times in life, like divorce, retirement, or redundancy, when our sense of who we are can be undermined. Identifying a sense of purpose can have a positive impact on our physical and mental health.
Resilience is described as the rapidity with which you recover from adversity. Some people can recover quickly. Others find it much harder to do so.
Mindfulness practice can improve resilience. However, it is not a quick fix. For some of us, our neural pathways have been strengthened over many, many years of believing that we are a certain way and that is just how it is. Mindfulness affecting neuroplasticity is like changing the course of a river that has been flowing in the same direction for many years. It is a gradual process and patience is key.
To learn mindfulness at a young age is to move a brook or stream and to build resilience as our children grow.
A mindfulness practice can be for as little time as you can spare each day, but ideally try to practice every day for 30 consecutive days. If you start at one minute a day then that is a brilliant start, and it can be built upon whenever you have time. Your focus could be your breath, your feet on the floor, the sounds of birds in the trees, the food in your mouth, a spider’s web, or whatever in your environment you can focus your attention on. Take a minute of your time to come out of your thoughts to shift your focus the present moment. Returning to your thoughts is not wrong, it’s normal, just recognise that you have returned to your thoughts, and when you can shift your focus back to whatever you are focusing on.
A simple mindfulness practice can be to focus on our breath.
- Breathe in through your nose and then out through your mouth;
- Focus on your breath. Feel the air moving into your nose, your chest filling with air right down into your abdomen
- Let go of your thoughts and stay with your breath. When you realise that your mind has drifted back to your thoughts, acknowledge the thoughts and gently bring yourself back to your breath. Notice as you move between the focus of your breath and your thoughts.
- Try this for one minute. If you wish increase the duration.
This is something that we can explore in counselling, or there are lots of apps available which you can download and access.