What is mindfulness?
The human mind
The human mind is thinking all the time: about the past, and about the future. Distress and stress are caused when we worry about what will happen before it even has happened and to keep thinking about the past, when it is already done. When we have worried thoughts like “ how will I manage” or “ I don’t think I can cope” or thoughts that things should not be happening the way they are, this stirs up feelings and emotions and has an effect on our physical bodies. We get tense, we may have pain, we feel heavy or dull, or constantly on edge and agitated as if we are looking out for danger.
Mindfulness is a practice drawing on ancient contemplative traditions and now combined with modern psychology: Mindfulness helps us to notice and acknowledge what is happening in our experience with a new attitude. It helps us to choose how to manage the difficult and painful things that arise in our life.
Mindfulness and Stress Reduction
The Human Brain and three systems: threat, drive, soothe
According to the Psychologist Paul Gilbert, there are three systems that we operate from: The Threat system, the Drive System and the Soothe system (Gilbert 2009) . These systems are hard wired in our Brains to help us survive and thrive. Our threat system is there to alert us to danger. The brain very quickly sends messages to systems in the body that enable us to get ready to run or fight or freeze according to what will help us to survive the immediate danger. However if we have been in a lot of danger in our lives then our threat system forgets how to switch off. We end up always looking out for threats in our world and we forget how to be calm and to relax.
Through the practice of mindfulness we can recognize what system we are in. It trains the mind to direct our attention to the present moment without judging the moment. When we can choose where we focus, this helps us to stop worrying about the future and thinking about the past. Mindfulness helps us to notice if we are in threat mode when we don’t need to be. The drive mode is also important as this makes us get up in the morning, motivates us to learn and be active and to thrive. If we are always in the drive or threat mode however and never rest this can lead to a state of exhaustion. We feel we are running on empty, we have no energy and our mood drops. Practicing mindfulness helps us to move into the soothe system so that we can restore our energy. The mind can rest in quiet and stillness.
From doing to being
We perceive danger – we feel afraid. To protect us the mind sends messages to the body which gets ready to fight or run or freeze –muscles get tense, we shake, we sweat. this is a very fast reaction in the mind and body and depends on what we have experienced in the past.
Examples of threat system being activated in everyday life: when we think we are going to be late for an important appointment, when we can’t pay our bills, if we lose our job.
Motivation to learn, to do well, to work and make a life, to compete, to look after others and ourselves.
Examples of drive system in everyday life: when we are studying for an exam, when we are playing sports and are trying to win or do our best, when we work hard for ourselves and our families.
Rest and digest, restore our energy switch the nervous system onto low.
Examples of sooth system in everyday life: when we notice and enjoy the warmth of the sun on our face, see a beautiful view, enjoy the smile of a child.