Mindfulness can help mental wellbeing

Dear Editor,

The Caribbean Voice (TCV) has long advocated a package of measures and interventions in Guyana to help people to improve personal wellbeing. Until now conversations around mental health have tended to focus on depression but a University of Cambridge report published in the medical journal, Brain and Behaviour, suggested anxiety could be a much bigger problem. People with anxiety tend to be hyper-vigilant to negativity and worry excessively about the future, whereas those with depression tend to dwell on bad things about themselves. If cognitive behaviour therapy is not for you or you can’t afford it why not try Mindfulness?

TCV understands that Mindfulness isn’t the answer to everything, and it’s important that our enthusiasm doesn’t run ahead of the evidence. It can be easy to rush through life without stopping to notice much. Paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you – can improve your mental wellbeing. Some people call this awareness “mindfulness”.

Sarah Stewart-Brown, Professor of Public Health at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and a wellbeing expert, says: “Feeling happy is a part of mental wellbeing. But it’s far from the whole”.  She added, “Feelings of contentment, enjoyment, confidence and engagement with the world are all a part of mental wellbeing,” as are self-esteem and self-confidence, a feeling that you can do the things you want to do, and good relationships, “which bring joy to you and those around you.”

Of course, good mental wellbeing does not mean that you never experience feelings or situations that you find difficult. But it does mean that you feel you have the resilience to cope when times are tougher than usual. It can help to think about “being well” as something you do, rather than something you are. The more you put in, the more you are likely to get out.

In addition to our self-esteem workshops, TCV proposes that Mindfulness training be promoted across the country as evidence shows it’s good for mental wellbeing. Mindfulness can help us enjoy life more and understand ourselves better.

Most of us have issues that we find hard to let go and Mindfulness can help us deal with them more productively. We can ask: ‘Is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful, or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts?’ Awareness of this kind also helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier and helps us deal with them better. Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the United Kingdom as a way to prevent depression in people who have had three or more bouts of depression in the past. TCV believes Mindfulness can be applied in the context of Guyana using a Train the Trainer approach.

“No-one can give wellbeing to you. It’s you who has to take action,” says Professor Stewart-Brown. Reminding yourself to take notice of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and the world around you is the first step to mindfulness. “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. “All this may sound very small, but it has huge power to interrupt the ‘autopilot’ mode we often engage in day to day, and to give us new perspectives on life.”

It can be helpful to pick a regular time – the morning journey to work or a walk at lunchtime – during which you decide to be aware of the sensations created by the world around you. Trying new things, such as sitting in a different seat in meetings or going somewhere new for lunch, can also help you notice the world in a new way.

“Some people find it very difficult to practise mindfulness. As soon as they stop what they’re doing, lots of thoughts and worries crowd in,” says Professor Williams. “It might be useful to remember that Mindfulness isn’t about making these thoughts go away, but rather about seeing them as mental events. “Some people find that it is easier to cope with an over-busy mind if they are doing gentle yoga or walking.” To develop an awareness of thoughts and feelings, some people find it helpful to silently name them: “Here’s the thought that I might fail that exam”. Or, “This is anxiety”.

You can practise Mindfulness anywhere, but it can be especially helpful to take a mindful approach if you realise that, for several minutes, you have been ‘trapped’ in reliving past problems or ‘pre-living’ future worries. As well as practising Mindfulness in daily life, it can be helpful to set aside time for a more formal Mindfulness practice. Mindfulness meditation involves sitting silently and paying attention to thoughts, sounds, the sensations of breathing or parts of the body, bringing your attention back whenever the mind starts to wander.

Five things that, according to research, can really help to boost our mental wellbeing:

Connect – connect with the people around you: your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Spend time developing these relationships.

  • Be active – you don’t have to go to the gym. Take a walk, go cycling, play a game, draw, sing… find any activity that you enjoy and make it a part of your life.
  • Keep learning – learning new skills can give you a sense of achievement and a new confidence. So why not sign up for that cooking course, start learning to play a musical instrument, figure out how to fix your bike or repair broken furniture or torn clothing?
  • Give to others – even the smallest act can count, whether it’s a smile, a thank you, a kind word, helping an elderly person cross the road, carrying bags for a pregnant woman or stopping to chat with a lonely person. Larger acts, such as volunteering at your local community centre, school or hospital can improve your mental wellbeing and help you build new social networks.
  • Be mindful – be more aware of the present moment, including your thoughts and feelings, your body and the world around you.

One theory for the rise in anxiety is that whilst we are digitally connected we are less connected to each other than people used to be a couple of decades ago. Daily life is also less communal and collaborative as more and more people are becoming individualistic particularly when compared with life in the past. And yet, we all want to be accepted and liked. Being excluded from a group to which we want to belong is a real terror for many people today. Whether the result of fear of missing out or fear of being left out, anxiety can be seriously life-limiting and that’s no fun at all.

Yours faithfully,

Annan Boodram

For The Caribbean

Voice

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