There is no question that physical exercise is good for our health; the evidence to prove this is undisputed. But believe it or not, this fact was not always well known.
Now, empirical evidence is showing that there are benefits to keeping our minds healthy, just as we do our bodies. In fact, managing what our minds get up to is predicted by some to be the next frontier of health and wellbeing.
Why is it important to look after our minds?
In a fast-paced world, filled with distractions, deadlines and demands, the ability to manage our own minds is absolutely critical to our ability to perform, lead, connect, inspire and deliver.
Having team members that feel overwhelmed or who struggle to stay focused and present at work can have a significant impact not only on wellbeing, but on productivity, engagement, relationships, teamwork, leadership and creative thinking.
So what exactly is mindfulness?
Mindfulness means having moment-to-moment awareness of what is going on in our heads, and what is going on around us. We are paying attention “on purpose” to what is right here, right now, without dwelling on the past, excessively planning for the future, or unduly worrying about what's happening in the present.
Mindfulness training is rapidly becoming a popular and effective tool for organisations to improve the performance of their people and the business.
So how does mindfulness work?
Mindfulness has been researched scientifically for over 35 years and has been proven to be effective in reducing stress, depression, chronic pain, fatigue, high blood pressure, sleep problems and anxiety. There are also strong correlations between mindfulness training and improvements in wellbeing, relationships and performance.
As you become more mindful:
- Your attention increases. You will be able to concentrate for longer periods of time, be more productive, and more attentive.
- You are much more aware of what’s going on around you, and also whats going on in your head. You become better able to recognise and manage negative thoughts, and more empathetic to those around you.
- You start to act differently. You become less reactive, and more calm and clear in your actions. This healthier approach leads to more enjoyment of your work
Just like with physical exercise where we get fit by actually taking part in some activity and not just hearing a trainer tell you about it, the way to become more mindful is to actually take the time to practice it. This strengthens our ‘mindfulness muscle’ over time.
Science and research
Research into the health benefits of mindfulness started in 1979 when Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn put together the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme (MBSR) to help treat patients at the University of Massachusetts Hospital.
Since then, MBSR has been scientifically proven to be effective in reducing anxiety and stress, depression, sleep problems, fatigue, and even chronic pain and high blood pressure.
In 2013, neuroscientists were able to show physical changes in the brain’s structure after eight weeks of mindfulness training (ref: "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density"). Scans showed that brain volume increased in regions responsible for learning, memories, regulation of emotions, empathy and compassion. They also showed decreases in parts of the brain responsible for anxiety and stress.
In 2016 a white paper produced by a UK Government working party and several global organisations stated that there are strong correlations between mindfulness training and improvements in wellbeing, relationships and performance.