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Does your mind ever say to you “I’m not good enough, smart enough, slim enough, perfect enough? Or, if only I had a better partner, car, house, job - then I’d be happy”?
Despite feeling lonely and wanting to socialise do thoughts like “I’m hopeless, things won’t ever get better, what’s the point” keep you glued to the couch of an evening? Is imagining all kinds of worst-case scenarios - which will probably never happen - making you increasingly anxious?
If so, you are not alone. Your mind is simply doing what it was designed to do.
The human brain evolved primarily to keep us safe, to constantly be on the lookout for anything even slightly uncomfortable or dangerous. Unfortunately, the very thing meant to protect us can easily turn against us, offering us comments and quick fix solutions which appear helpful at the time but can lead to a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
While we all experience sadness, or feel anxious from time to time, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 1 in 4 people will be affected by a mental health issue at some point in their lives. Globally over 300 million people are estimated to suffer from depression and nearly as many have anxiety disorders, with these conditions often occurring together.
Depression is recognised by the WHO as the as the single largest contributor to global disability while anxiety disorders rank 6th.
And while medication can be important and useful in certain circumstances, medication does not build mental and emotional resilience.
Fortunately, mindfulness 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.
To give you an understanding of how mindfulness supports mental health and wellbeing let’s have a brief look at some simple brain science.
The most recent evolutionary part of our brain is the pre-frontal cortex. 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.
However, whenever you feel anxious, threatened, dissatisfied, or disconnected – whether real or just imagined - the limbic brain (the more primitive part of the brain) overrides the pre-frontal cortex, because well, safety first. Which is great if you’re ever physically threatened and in real danger, but much of the time there is no real physical risk, you’re simply caught in a destructive loop of negative rumination or fearful anxious thoughts.
Without a way to interrupt your fast brain system (when it isn’t necessary, or helpful) you’re far more likely to engage in knee-jerk reactions, destructive quick fixes or seek out short term pleasures, like shouting at a colleague, avoiding difficult conversations, or eating the entire tub of ice cream.
Anything to make the discomfort go away!
Put simply, the limbic brain asks “how can I find security and comfort right now? How can I make these bad feelings go away?” While the prefrontal cortex asks, “if I cultivate this habit over the long-term, will it move me towards what really matters? Will this lead to a rich and meaningful life?”
Mindfulness develops your ability to engage your PFC more often.
The more you can observe your own private inner experience with more perspective, curiosity, objectivity, and self-compassion the easier it is to unhook from thoughts, emotions and unhelpful habits that no longer serve you.
Given we are biologically inclined to overly fixate on the negative over 80% of the time, mindfulness is a prerequisite for interrupting negative thinking and emotional patterns and unhooking from them.
Mindfulness helps you stay in the present moment and to see more objectively what is happening now. It clears the fog of inattention created by incessant thinking and distraction and reconnects us with our prefrontal cortex and our natural wisdom.
The more lost in thought and distracted we are, the easier it is to get hooked by unhelpful thoughts and behaving in ways that take us away from who we really want to be.
It’s impossible to make healthier choices in real time when you’re not aware of your patterns while they are happening. Mindfulness gives you that real time ‘observer mind’ awareness.
Connecting with the present moment and tapping into our balanced ‘observer-mind’, is the first step in learning to watch your 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.
And the beautiful thing about mindfulness is that not only does it grow self-awareness, but it also opens you up to seeing and appreciating the good things in life that are easy to overlook.
Once the mind is steadier, mindfulness not only helps you see how and when you get hooked, it helps you unhook. The more fused we are to our beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and urges the more they control us.
Learning to defuse means seeing thoughts and emotions without being fused to them and being obsessed by them. Learning to see them as passing objects of your attention, without harsh self-judgment and with self-compassion, lessens their power over you. They can’t hook you quite as easily!
You cannot be caught up in a thought and emotion while observing it. Shifting to observer mode and accepting your experience, instead of fighting it, unhooks you from the natural pull of your thoughts and emotions. You begin to realise it’s okay to have difficult thoughts and emotions.
And instead of evaluating thoughts and emotions as either true or false, good or bad, right or wrong – we see they’re just thoughts or feelings. They don’t need to define us. Learning how to stop fighting, avoiding, obeying, and giving them all our attention is extremely liberating!
For example, plenty of people have a fear of public speaking. While public speaking is not life threatening, if you’re afraid of public speaking your mind can go into overdrive. Anxious thoughts like “I can’t do it, I’m a terrible speaker, I’ll make a complete fool of myself” can cause your heart to race, hands shake, and mouth go dry.
Desperately trying to get rid of the anxiety just makes the situation worse and before you know it you are anxious about being anxious. Then self-judgment kicks in “why aren’t I more confident, what is wrong with me!?”
In this case, anxiety is not the problem. Everyone experiences anxiety, especially around public speaking. But when your life becomes dominated by trying to get rid of or avoid anxiety, you hold yourself back from reaching your full potential.
Instead of letting anxiety own us and getting lost in stories like “I’m an anxious person, or I need to get rid of this anxiety” mindfulness encourages us to practise the power of noticing, naming, and accepting our emotions.
While changing our inner dialogue from “I’m anxious” to a simple observation like “I notice anxiety” may seem a small thing, this change of perspective is amazingly freeing.
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.
Over time we will also begin to experience the positive benefits of being present more often, like really engaging with what we are doing, and grounding ourselves whenever we notice we’re getting hooked by uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.
Mindfulness is not about 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, while not getting lost in thoughts that intensify our emotions.
In fact, trying to escape from difficult thoughts and emotions just ends up increasing stress and anxiety. Instead, we can 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, we cannot see clearly and it’s easy to get swept away.
In the same way, without a way of observing your thoughts and emotions it’s easy to get hooked! The practice of labelling your feelings is another practical way that mindfulness helps you to unhook.
Every thought you think – whether you’re conscious of it or not - comes with a corresponding emotional and sensory signature. For example, if you habitually judge others, you might notice feelings of resentment and irritation, experienced as tightness in your stomach, a clenched jaw and facial tension. Practising mindfulness reacquaints us with these changing physical sensations and alerts us to thinking patterns that are not helping our wellbeing and happiness.
You can refine that even further by noticing any patterns of thinking you regularly engage in. The clearer you are the less power those old thought patterns they have over you. This allows us to really grow in real-time self-awareness and to make wiser choices.
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 to deal with things more objectively and wisely.
When we accept reality as it is, our limbic brain is less triggered, and we have more access to your prefrontal cortex. Then, when we do act, we’re less likely to make the situation worse by acting from anger or bitterness.
This is why nonjudgment, kindness and compassion are so revered in the world of mindfulness.
When we act from these attributes, we reduce our own and another’s suffering. We act from an emotionally balanced place. We cannot work with ourselves and others wisely if we are locked in judgment or anger.
Research confirms that people who are kind and self-compassionate are more satisfied with their lives, have better physical and mental health, and stronger relationships. Conversely judging ourselves or others harshly increases stress and can have a severe long-term impact on our mental health.
Practising kindness and compassion doesn’t mean letting others step all over you, or not holding your ground. It is possible to end a relationship, fire someone from a job, or to deliver tough and honest feedback with kindness and compassion.
The key is the absence of anger and judgment, the presence of good will, and the intention to support ourselves and others.
This is an active kind of acceptance that not only leads to more mental wellbeing, but also to wise action.
If you are interested in maintaining your mental health or addressing a mental health struggle, the Awakened Mind Mental Wellbeing program was designed especially for you. The program can be done individually or as a group. Everything you need is housed on the Awakened Mind app.
To view the introductory animation on how the program works use this link.
Mental health is almost always related to how we are thinking and what we are giving our attention to. With that in mind, this program incorporates concepts from Acceptance and Commitment Training, or ACT for short. ACT is known to be effective for conditions like anxiety, depression, stress, burnout, and a range of psychological disorders.
ACT uses evidence-based interventions grounded in mindfulness to increase your mental and emotional skills for handling the difficulties that inevitably come with living. In fact, mindfulness is a fundamental part of ACT.
The basic premise of ACT is that we are constantly making choices every moment of every day about our thoughts and behaviours. You could say life is one big continuous choice-point!
We can choose to do things to avoid anything unpleasant and satisfy short term pleasures, or we can choose to do things which build a rich, mentally well, and meaningful life long-term.
Beliefs, values, and behavioural choices that lead us toward what really matters expand our life’s potential, while certain situations, beliefs, thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and behavioural choices easily hook us and take us away from who we really want to be.
The less aware we are of what is driving our choices the easier it is to lose sight of what really matters, and the more we move away from what we really want and need for a thriving life.
The Awakened Mind Mental Wellbeing program incorporates an ACT Matrix to make the process as simple and effective as possible. It includes 4 steps:
For a brief animation outlining how ACT works use this link. Add in animation.
Throughout the program we encourage you to regularly practise mindfulness to steady your mind and tune into your body. The more inwardly balanced you are, the less easily you’ll fall prey to old habits of thinking and feeling that take you away from who you really want to be.
If you’d like to try out a meditation from the Mental Wellbeing program, go here. This practice is helpful for unhooking from thinking and moving toward what’s important.
Once the mind is steadier, we explore how making room for your challenging thoughts and emotions grows your mental wellbeing. While it’s normal to want to avoid and get rid of unpleasant experiences, ignoring, denying or even fighting against our inner experience only leads to habits and behaviours that take us away from mental wellness.
Even when our intentions are clear and we have a strong desire to do things differently, change is rarely easy. If you’ve ever tried to start a new healthy habit, then you probably know exactly what we’re talking about.
The moment we decide to change anything, even something relatively small, we immediately feel an inner resistance – a discomfort – as the older emotional limbic brain shouts out for short-term relief and quick fixes. Basically, it wants whatever feels easier!
The good news is, that consistently practising mindfulness builds the inner resources to manage and overcome this resistance.
When we meditate, we learn that we can stay present with itches, a sore back, boredom, impatience, anxiety, sadness and more. Sooner or later our brain registers that emotional or physical discomfort is really just a series of simple sensations and if we can manage them during meditation, we can also handle discomfort and face our challenges in our daily life.
It’s not as bad as we thought. We can and move forward with the life we want.
The Awakened Mind Mental Wellbeing program includes activities, meditations, and in-the-moment mindfulness practices to support your journey every step of the way. There is even a series of podcasts with an ACT expert for extra support and guidance.
By generating new experiences, we see that we can really change, and the only way to do that is by trying.
It’s not easy, but your life is worth it, you are worth it.