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Mindfulness over matter

Ashleigh Went and Andrea Murray

‘Mindfulness’ has become something of a buzzword in the wellness industry—one known for taking health principles and turning them into something exclusive and glamorous.

Often, this is achieved by wildly inflating the benefits of a practice, activity or food at the cost of any or all scientific evidence.

Mindfulness, however, is one of the exceptions to the wellness rule. Clinical Neuropsychologist and co-founder of wellbeing studio here., Andrea Murray is an avid believer in the benefits of mindfulness, a stance that’s firmly backed by studies and experience. We delve further into the psychological process.

What does it mean to be mindful?

“There are three mental states that our brain can be in at any one time—the past, the present, or the future. Our brain can spend time in the past, reminiscing about pleasant or unpleasant experiences that have unfolded. It can also spend time in the future, planning and organised for upcoming events, or anticipating problems that might pop up and trying our best to solve them.”

“Our brain can also spend time in the present. This is where we experience life exactly as it is. When we are fully present in a moment of our lives, we experience life through all of our senses and it becomes rich and meaningful. This is when we are mindful.”

What are the benefits?

“Being present has a two-fold effect on the brain: it decreases our stress and increases our productivity. When we stress, our sympathetic nervous system becomes active and gets us ready to fight or flight. But when we become mindful we very effectively calm the system back down. It may seem counterintuitive, but a calm and relaxed system is also a very productive one. When we focus all of our attention on one thing at a time, our brain’s efficiency is maximised.”

“The wonderful thing about mindfulness is that its positive effects are felt across different aspects of our lives. Relationships start to work better because we’re more engaged and connected with our partners and our children. Work starts to get better because we’re able to deepen our focus and engagement. Our health gets better because we reduce our stress and its wear and tear on the body.”

Why do we find it difficult to practice mindfulness?

“Our brain has evolved with one focus in mind—our survival.  Because of this, our brain does not like to hang out in the present moment. In terms of evolution, this was the mental state that was most detrimental to our survival. Our brain prefers to spend time in the past, reminiscing about unpleasant or painful experiences, so we can learn from these and do things better next time around. It also likes to hang out in the future tense, worrying about things that are yet to happen, predicting the worst, preparing for the worst. Historically, our survival has depended on us learning from past experiences and anticipating upcoming problems. This is why our brain resists being mindful.”

How can we become more mindful?

“Any exercise that gets you to spend more time in the present moment helps you become more mindful. We all understand the importance of looking after our body, of exercising and eating well. But very few of us do things to look after our brain, to keep it strong and healthy too. Using a mindfulness app can be considered as exercise for your brain. By training your brain to sit for longer and longer in the present moment, it starts to recognise how good this space feels, and wants to spend more time there.”

What kind of mindfulness exercises do you use?

“Any exercise that gets you to focus on one thing at a time is good for your brain and body. I really enjoy exercises that get you to focus on physiological processes occurring within the body. My favourite exercise is breath work, a type of mindfulness that focuses on taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths. Breathing is a natural thing we do all day every day. It is an easy place to start your mindfulness training because your brain focuses on it quite effortlessly.”

“Breathing exercises are helpful for two reasons—the first is that they calm the physiological body when you become stressed; the second is it very easily pulls your brain back into the present moment.”

“Another way of becoming more mindful is by focusing on your sensory experiences. By asking yourself ‘what are seeing? what are you hearing? what are you feeling?’, you are using your senses to help the brain sit comfortably in the present moment.”

Are mindfulness apps effective?

“Mindfulness apps are wonderful because they introduce you to what it feels like when your brain enters present mode. They guide you through the process, and act a little like a personal trainer for arguably the most important muscle in your body—the brain.”

“Ultimately, though, what you want to be able to do is bring mindfulness to your everyday experiences. You won’t be able to be mindful one hundred percent of the time; your brain simply won’t allow it. It wants you to learn from your past, and to spend time planning for your future. But when you begin using mindfulness informally through the day, that’s when it becomes truly transformative.”

 

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Ashleigh Went

Ashleigh Went has a passion for all things health and wellness. She’s currently furthering her studies in nutrition, but also has a Bachelor of Communication and is a qualified fitness instructor with over five years experience working in a gym. Among other things, she’s a lover of great food, coffee and fashion. She can usually be found shopping for activewear, in the gym or updating her Instagram @wentworthavenue More about the Author

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Andrea Murray

Dr Andrea Murray is a Clinical Neuropsychologist and co-founder of wellbeing studio here. Based on principles of slow living and mindfulness, the studio offers wellbeing services for the brain and body including yoga, psychology and pilates. Andrea believes in the preventative nature of psychology and uses mindfulness-based therapies to work collaboratively with children, young people and adults to reduce stress and build resilience in their lives. More about the Author