There’s no doubt about it: most of us are stressed. That was a fact even before the pandemic, but a number of studies carried out since suggest that we’re finding it increasingly difficult to cope in its aftermath, with the true toll on our mental health yet to reveal itself fully to scientists.
Mindfulness, or the practice of being completely present in the moment, is a key technique for dealing with mental health issues like stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. It can help with physical ones, too, from psoriasis and irritable bowel syndrome to fibromyalgia. While sceptics dismiss it as a practice only wellness warriors have time for, actually there is ample evidence to back up its benefits for body and mind. Despite being a challenging practice, it can help us all move through a hectic world with more ease and contentment, and to still a chattering mind.
“There are lots of benefits of trying to stay as mindful as possible,” agrees mindfulness guru Melanie Santorini. “Over time we become less in thrall to our chattering monkey minds. We notice what it’s saying, but we no longer identify with it,” she says. “We then begin to make decisions and life choices from somewhere deeper, more consistent and kinder, inside. Our moods can improve. Our emotions stabilize as we learn to navigate the turbulent seas of strong feelings. We feel clever and lighter and steadier inside; less cluttered or congested or turbulent, which has a positive impact on our overall wellbeing: psychological as well as physical. The greatest benefit? It gives us back our life. We’re no longer mentally or emotionally absent, distracted, living in the past or fantasizing about the future. We’re here, now. Finally.”
Here Vogue speaks to three experts to get their advice on how to begin and maintain your mindfulness practice – and how to do it properly.
Notice, notice, notice
Being mindful is all about being aware in each moment. “Notice – it’s not about what happened yesterday, or about what might happen tomorrow,” says Santorini. “It’s about being fully present, right now, as you live your life.” Ask yourself how you feel and what’s physically going on in your body, right now, in the moment.
Start by setting up alerts to remind you of this important (and deceptively difficult) task. Whether you do it as you buy your morning coffee, as you walk to work, or while you brush your teeth, make them trigger moments to notice what’s going on [with you] mentally and physically, without judging or having opinions on it,” adds Santorini.
If you’re unsure of the difference between meditation and mindfulness, Santorini explains that meditation is a classic way to practise mindfulness and become fully present. “Different people do it differently – some watch their breath, others use a repeated word or mantra, or focus on a candle. The underlying principles are the same – it’s about setting aside time to be relaxed and aware.” Whenever the mind wanders, gently bring it back to your awareness.
“The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness – start to notice that, too,” suggests Santorini. Many of us exist in a whirlwind state, so whether your mindlessness is driving somewhere with no awareness of doing it, or eating lunch and not remembering what it tasted like (we’ve all been there), recognize when you’ve been mindless, and draw yourself back into the present moment.
Tap into your breath
It pays to tune into your breath, too. Slow, deep breaths help activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and digest mode, and simultaneously switches our sympathetic nervous system – or angsty fight or flight mode – off. “Breathing effectively can be tricky for some people because we’re usually so passive with it,” says Matt Penman, a yoga teacher at Bodyism.