20th November, 2020 • 4 min read

Life can feel busy.

And when you’re so busy trying to balance your home, work and social life, stopping to notice what’s happening around you right now can feel like a luxury.

But taking time to pay attention to the present moment is worth it – research suggests it can help improve your physical and mental wellbeing.

Focusing on the present moment in this way is known as 'mindfulness', and it’s more formally defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. This means that simple actions like stopping to notice the thoughts running through your head at a given moment or the feeling of an object in your hand count as being more mindful.

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

Mindfulness is used in many settings, from schools to workplaces and health clinics. This may be because research has shown that it can help improve certain physical and mental health conditions or symptoms, including:

But while the research is encouraging, it doesn’t prove that mindfulness works for everyone or that it should be used instead of other treatments a doctor may recommend. If you’re interested in trying mindfulness for a symptom you have, speak to a doctor. They can check the cause of your symptoms and give you advice about how to best manage them.

How mindfulness works

According to Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre in the UK, “mindfulness allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings we experience.

"This lets us stand back from our thoughts and start to see their patterns. Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply 'mental events' that don’t have to control us.”

Thinking endlessly about something you’re worried about is known as rumination, and it can affect your mood. Rumination is common when you have an ongoing symptom, like pain, but mind-based strategies, like mindfulness, can help to reduce rumination.

How to be mindful

You don’t have to take a special course to start being more mindful. Simply remind yourself to notice your thoughts, feelings, and the world around you more often. This is the first step to mindfulness.

Notice the everyday

"Even as we go about our daily lives, we can notice the sensations of things, the food we eat, the air moving past the body as we walk," says Professor Williams. This can help us see things more clearly and from a different point of view.

Keep it regular

You may find it helps to pick a regular time – the morning journey to work or a walk at lunchtime – to be aware of the sensations created by the world around you.

Try something new

Try new things, like sitting in a different seat in meetings or going somewhere new for lunch. This can help you notice the world in a new way.

Watch your thoughts

"Some people find it very difficult to practice mindfulness. As soon as they stop what they're doing, lots of thoughts and worries crowd in," says Professor Williams.

But mindfulness isn’t about getting rid of those thoughts; it’s about seeing them as ‘mental events’.

Professor Williams says, "Imagine standing at a bus station and seeing 'thought buses' coming and going without having to get on them and be taken away. This can be very hard at first, but… it’s possible.”

Name thoughts and feelings

You may be able to develop an awareness of thoughts and feelings by silently naming them. For example, "Here’s the thought that I might fail the exam" or "This is anxiety".

3 mindfulness practices to try

Set aside time to practise mindfulness more formally, as well as doing it in your day to day life. For example, you could try

mindfulness meditation

To do this, sit silently and pay attention to your thoughts, breathing or any other sounds you can hear. Then bring your attention back to this whenever your mind starts to wander.

You can also try

tai chi
to help you become more aware of your breathing.

Key points:

  • mindfulness is being aware of the present moment, of your thoughts, feelings and the world around you
  • mindfulness can improve your mental wellbeing by helping you see your thoughts and feelings more clearly
  • there are many ways to be more mindful, like focusing on what you’re eating and how it tastes
  • different mindfulness practices include yoga, tai chi and meditation
  • mindfulness may also be useful for people with ongoing pain

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.