Seven Elements of Good Mental Health: 3. Mindfulness – The Prospering Soul

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding poor health, but also enjoying good health. Our psychological health is no different.

Before we take a look at poor mental health, let’s look at some of the ways that people can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. This next series of posts will discuss seven elements that are Biblically and scientifically recognised as important to people living richer and more fulfilling lives.

These aren’t the only ways that a person can find fulfilment, nor are they sure-fire ways of preventing all mental health problems either. They’re not seven steps to enlightenment or happiness either.   But applying these principles can improve psychosocial wellbeing, and encourage good mental health.

3. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice that we can all become better at.

Mindfulness involves directing our attention towards things in the present moment, and away from those thoughts that drag us into the faults of the past or the fear of the future [1]. Between the various disciplines of psychology and a number of different religions, there are many ways in which mindfulness has been defined. The way I consider mindfulness is similar to that in the ACT framework, which is simply non-judgemental awareness of one’s moment-to-moment experience. In other words, mindfulness involves accepting the experience our internal and external realities simply as they are, without judging them as good or bad, positive or negative. Mindfulness accepts the experience of events fully, without resorting to excessive preoccupation or suppression of the experience.

People who are naturally mindful are more likely to have higher levels of life satisfaction, agreeableness, conscientiousness, vitality, self esteem, empathy, sense of autonomy, competence, optimism, and pleasant affect, and are less likely to have depression, neuroticism, absent-mindedness, dissociation, rumination, cognitive reactivity, social anxiety, difficulties in emotion regulation, experiential avoidance and general psychological symptoms.

So mindfulness is obviously a good thing to have, though before we get too carried away, it may be that mindfulness isn’t the cause of all of these positive effects, but simply a common association. In other words, it might be that people who are psychologically health naturally tend to be more mindful.

For the most part, this is probably the case, but there is evidence for mindfulness as a psychological intervention for those who are not so naturally mindful.  Those who are taught to practice mindfulness skills also demonstrate an increased ability to cope with habitual urges (like a desire to smoke), feelings of anxiety, low mood, and fearfulness [2].

Mindfulness has some overlap with the psychological skill of acceptance. In mindfulness, we not only stop fighting with our feelings and thoughts, but we take a step back to pay attention to them and observe them in a non-judgemental way. With acceptance, we acknowledge the thoughts and feelings, but divert our attention to other things.

To clarify, mindfulness is non-judgementally observing our thoughts, feelings and emotions, not fighting with them to suppress them, or passively allowing our thoughts and feelings to overwhelm us. If our thoughts or feelings were like a hungry lion, mindfulness is standing outside of the cage, observing the different characteristics of the lion, rather than staying in the cage to try and fight it, or passively stand in the cage waiting to become lunch.

Mindfulness doesn’t need special training. Being mindful is simply being aware of your thoughts, feelings and emotions, and accepting them for what they are. Are you happy at the moment? What does that feel like in your body? What does anxiety feel like? Describe the feeling … hot or cold, squeezing, searing, heavy or light? Do you have an urge to do something, like have some chocolate or smoke a cigarette? What is that urge like? Can you put it into words?

Only one word of warning. It would be fair to assume that someone will be reading this who has experienced some severe trauma in their lives. Both acceptance and mindfulness will help to manage the feelings that your trauma will inevitably cause, but if the severity of that trauma causes you to be overwhelmed by your feelings, don’t try and tackle those memories and emotions on your own. Work with a psychologist or doctor who is experienced in mindfulness-based therapies, so there is someone to assist you through the process so you’re not overwhelmed, until you get better and stronger.

Often mindfulness is taught as a contemplative activity, that is, we think about the feelings as we observe them. However, there is nothing wrong with expressing your mindfulness in other ways, like drawing, painting or movement. You can also write them down. I often read through the Psalms that King David wrote, and wonder if he was modelling mindfulness for us in the way he acknowledged and described his feelings in the words that he wrote as prayer and poetry. Find what works best for you as you grow in the skill of mindfulness.

References

[1]        Harris R. The happiness trap : how to stop struggling and start living. Boston: Trumpeter, 2008.
[2]        Keng SL, Smoski MJ, Robins CJ. Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: a review of empirical studies. Clinical psychology review 2011 Aug;31(6):1041-56.

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