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If you experience thoughts like “I’m hopeless, things won’t ever get better, what’s the point?” or find yourself imagining all kinds of worst-case scenarios – that probably won’t ever happen but leave you feeling anxious - then you are not alone.
Your mind is simply doing what it was designed to do, to keep you safe. It’s constantly on the lookout for anything even slightly uncomfortable or dangerous. Which is great right? Safety first. But unfortunately, the very thing meant to protect us can easily turn against us.
Why is that?
Well, whenever you feel anxious, threatened, dissatisfied, or disconnected – whether real or just imagined you mind immediately offers you quick fix solutions which appear helpful at the time, but over time can lead to a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
These solutions are essential if you’re physically threatened and in real danger, but much of the time there is no real physical risk, you’re simply caught up in a destructive loop of negative rumination or fearful anxious thoughts.
Without a way to interrupt it, you’re likely to engage in knee-jerk reactions, destructive quick fixes or engaging in unhealthy short-term pleasures. Anything to make the discomfort go away!
Fortunately, mindfulness meditation brings with it a skillset to expose how our inner world of thoughts, urges and emotions may be sabotaging our mental health and offers useful tools for mental wellbeing.
While we all experience sadness or feel anxious from time to time, and medication can be important and useful in certain circumstances, medication does not build mental and emotional resilience, mindfulness meditation does.
To explain why mindfulness meditation is a wonderful practice to put into your mental health toolkit let’s have a brief look at how our minds work.
The most recent evolutionary part of our brain is the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). It is responsible for our higher executive functions and steering us toward living a life filled with meaning and purpose.
When your PFC is engaged it’s easier to step back and objectively witness what’s going on inside you, regulate your emotions, manage fears and urges, interrupt unhelpful habits, see the bigger picture and make decisions aligned with your core values.
Mindfulness meditation helps you to stay in the present moment longer and develops your ability to observe your own private inner experience with more perspective, curiosity, objectivity, and self-compassion. This makes it easier it is to unhook from unhelpful thoughts, emotions and habits that no longer serve you.
The more lost in thought and distracted we are, the easier it is to get hooked by unhelpful thoughts and to find ourselves looking for quick fixes and behaving in ways that take us away from who we really want to be.
Connecting with the present moment and tapping into your balanced ‘observer-mind’, is the first step in learning to watch our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations as they come and go.
Unfortunately, being present and observing our inner experience does not just automatically happen for most adults. Mindfulness meditation builds this skill.
The Awakened Mind app includes a range of guided meditations to stabilise and steady the mind. Once the mind is steadier, it is easier to see how and when you get hooked.
You cannot be caught up in a thought and emotion while observing it. Shifting to observer mode unhooks you from the natural pull of your thoughts and emotions. You begin to realise it’s okay to have difficult thoughts and emotions, they’re just thoughts or emotions. They don’t have to overwhelm you, nor do they need to define you.
Meditation as a practice encourages you to stop fighting, avoiding, obeying, and giving thoughts and emotions all your attention, which is extremely liberating! To get a taste of this, you might like to try out the ‘Returning from Thoughts’ meditation on the Awakened Mind app.
You’ve probably already noticed that desperately trying to get rid of uncomfortable thoughts and emotions just makes things worse. Then, self-judgment kicks in “what is wrong with me!?” When your life is dominated in this way, it’s really hard to reach your full potential.
Instead of letting our emotions own you and getting lost in stories like “I’m an anxious person, or I need to get rid of this anxiety” mindfulness meditation encourages you to practise the power of noticing and naming your emotions.
While changing your inner dialogue from “I’m anxious” to a simple observation like “I notice anxiety” may seem like a small thing, this change of perspective is amazingly freeing. The practice of noticing and labelling your feelings is another practical way that mindfulness helps you to unhook.
As we cultivate mindfulness, we build a precious inner resource to help us stay more balanced and accepting, even while experiencing difficult thoughts, urges and emotions.
And over time we begin to experience the positive benefits of being present more often, like really engaging with what we are doing. The beautiful thing is that not only does mindfulness meditation grow self-awareness, but it also opens you up to seeing and appreciating the good things in life that we usually overlook.
This practice encourages you to open your awareness to your surroundings while connecting with the senses - hearing, smell, and sight - as a way of experiencing peace of mind and ease in the moment.
It’s impossible to make healthier life choices in real time when you’re not aware of what’s really happening. Mindfulness gives you that real time ‘observer mind’ awareness.
We are not trying to stop or find ways to get rid of anxious or sad thoughts, emotions, and feelings, but learning to get better at noticing and accepting our inner experience, and not feeding the stories we tell ourselves that intensify our emotions.
Trying to escape from difficult thoughts and emotions just ends up increasing stress and anxiety. Instead, we learn to observe, feel, and accept our emotions from a calm center of mindfulness.
It's a bit like stepping into the eye of the storm and observing the swirl from a calmer safer place. When we’re in the storm’s swirl it’s easy to get swept away. You might like to try the ‘Finding True Balance’ meditation. This meditation develops your capacity to be mindful of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations instead of being swept away.
Research shows that people who are kinder toward themselves (more self-compassionate) are more satisfied with their lives, have better physical and mental health, and stronger relationships. Conversely when we judge ourselves harshly, we become more stressed, and the long-term impact can seriously harm our mental health.
Kindness and compassion don’t mean letting others step all over you, or not holding your ground. The key here is the absence of anger and judgment, and the presence of good will, the intention to support ourselves and others.
To be mindful is to be present and to accept life as it is. But acceptance should not be confused with resignation, tolerating, putting up with, and approving.
Acceptance from a mindfulness perspective, means recognizing that things are the way they are. This allows us to stop our argument with how things are (or should be) and deal with things more objectively and wisely.
When we accept reality as it is, emotional brain is less triggered, and we have more access to our pre-frontal cortex. Then, when we do act, our meditation training allows us to act from an emotionally balanced place, so we are less likely to make the situation worse.
This is an active kind of acceptance that not only leads to more mental wellbeing, but also to wise action.
It’s not easy, but your life is worth it, you are worth it.
Wishing you happiness, mental health, and wellbeing.