woman doing yoga stretch on the beach with the sea behind her
woman doing yoga stretch on the beach with the sea behind her
31st Jan 2023

Learn how to incorporate moments of peace into your day

Mindfulness and meditation are increasingly becoming part of our mental health toolbox – both as a daily ritual and as a salve in times of need. The hashtag #meditation has more than 51m posts on Instagram, with #mindfulness garnering a further 36m more.

Mindfulness is based on meditation practises, and it can help those struggling with stress, sleep, and more.

“Everybody has a finite amount of mental ‘bandwidth’ they can access at any point in time,” Dr Meera Joshi, a mindfulness expert at Bupa Global & UK explains. “When we are multi-tasking or feeling stressed this bandwidth can get congested. Practicing mindfulness can clear it which allows us to connect to the present, take appropriate action and continue with our day- hopefully refreshed.”

Whilst often used interchangeably and often go hand in hand, meditation and mindfulness are subtly different. Mindfulness is, as Ben Horton, team mental health nurse for Bupa Global & UK, explains, “an awareness that you develop by paying attention to the present moment and try to treat everything non-judgmentally. So, for example, if you’re walking down the street, you try not to focus on thoughts that leap up like “there’s so much litter,” and instead you try to see everything around you for what it is.”

Meditation, by contrast, is the practice where you train your brain to become more aware – but employing mindfulness as part of the technique.

How mindfulness changes the brain and can benefit your health

MRI scans have been used by scientists to see how the brain changes when people practise mindfulness. The results suggest that certain areas of the brain may either shrink or grow in response to regular mindfulness practice:

  • When practising mindfulness regularly, the grey matter in your brain’s amygdala – a region known for its role in stress – can become smaller.
  • And as the amygdala reduces in size, the pre-frontal cortex area of your brain - responsible for things like planning, problem solving, and controlling your emotions - can become thicker after practising mindfulness, showing increased activity in these areas of thought.
  • The hippocampus - an area of the brain which helps your memory and learning - can also become thicker after practising mindfulness.

Horton says that he has seen the techniques work incredibly well to combat stress. “One of the reasons that people become stressed is because they start worrying too much about things that may happen in the future,” Horton says. “Practices like meditation and mindfulness give you the opportunity to stop, close your eyes and examine those thoughts. You realise that they are just thoughts - like clouds in the sky that come and go. Mindfulness and meditation teach us that we all have those thoughts, but we don’t have to latch on to them – we can let them go. That can bring some people a huge amount of relief.”

Horton adds that in time, the use of mindfulness can retrain the brain to deescalate stressful situations – such as presenting at a board meeting or a job interview. “An interview can be hyped up in your mind and imbued with meaning such as “if I don’t get this job, then I’m a failure”. But if you work on mindfulness and meditative practices, you can learn to see this as a conversation with another human being. You can then think, “If I don’t get it, I’ll get feedback.” Often a stressful situation isn’t really about the situation before us, but the pressure and meaning we attach to it. Mindfulness and meditation help you strip that away and see what is actually there.”

Daily practices

Developing a mindful awareness is, Horton suggests, an excellent first step. It’s something you can do anywhere - as you are walking, commuting, or having a cup of tea. “The way I think about mindfulness is that it’s a way of really experiencing what is around you right now. To do this, you can focus on the senses – so what you smell, taste, see and touch – rather than formulating an opinion on something.”

If your mind slips off into a worry about something coming up – a deadline or collecting children from school on time – he suggests “being compassionate with yourself, but naming that thought, and bringing yourself back to your senses.” He adds that focusing on the present – rather than worrying about the future is key. “Anyone who starts the practice brand new will probably experience a racing mind; there is an assumption that you have to keep your mind blank, but that is almost impossible to do. It’s important to realise that your mind is going to be active – it wants to solve things and make sense of life.”

Dr Joshi says that she personally values taking short mindful breaks during the day. “As a doctor my day is quite busy, so I make sure I take 1-2 minutes of focusing on my breath, especially when there’s a lot going on.”

She says she supplements that with “formal meditation”, a practice she has done in various forms since childhood, 2-3 times a week, for 15 minutes.

To start a meditation practice, Dr Joshi suggests “sitting still for ten minutes and focusing on counting your breath – in for five, out for five. It keeps you focussed. If the mind wanders, then treat it with compassion and bring it back gently to the breath.”

Dr Joshi adds that there are online courses and apps that can help you develop your practice.

The more you practice, Horton says, the calmer the mind will become. “It becomes less chaotic and learns to lean into the calm.”

He says that making time for the practice is a really good way to support a healthy mind. “Taking the time to sit and do this is only about 1% of your day – but it makes the other 99% so much better.”

Points to consider

Horton does suggest that it is not always the most appropriate tool for all kinds of mental health problems. “It’s one tool, but there are also medication and therapy, which can be necessary in certain situations. You should always see a mental health professional if you do feel worried about your mental health.”

But, he adds, under the right guidance, meditation and mindfulness can also be used alongside other treatments. “When you feel ready and have the right support underneath you, it can be another useful way to help.”