Anxiety can work in one of two ways. Either it can feed us just the right amount of adrenaline to motivate us or it can lead us into a spiral of unhelpful thinking. As someone who tends towards the latter I’d regularly heard that mindfulness could be transformative.
Veronica Winterbourne, psychotherapist and founder of Evolutionaries, which introduces mindfulness to individuals, schools and businesses, and who came to give us an introduction, unsurprisingly agrees.
She explained that at its simplest mindfulness is about paying attention to our surroundings without attaching judgement. It encourages us to become more aware of our thoughts, emotions, breathing, even just the feel of the ground beneath our feet. Its practitioners claim that, through redirecting our thoughts away from ourselves, it can help break cycles of repetitive thinking. Crucially, it doesn’t have to take up loads of time.
“It’s not about making huge changes to your life,” Winterbourne explained. “Once you learn how to do something mindfully you can do so while drinking a glass of water, walking on your break, or eating a sandwich. It’s about doing it in small amounts, but you need to keep doing it; that’s how practice works.”
If that all sounds a bit fluffy, Winterbourne points out that there’s a hefty amount of neuroscience behind it. Harvard found that after an eight-week course of mindfulness MRI scans revealed that participants’ amygdalas, the part of the brain responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, appeared to shrink. Meanwhile, the pre-frontal cortex, associated with higher-order brain functions such as awareness, concentration, and decision-making, were thicker.
But you need the right environment. As Winterbourne guided us through the first breathing exercise the relaxation I begin to feel was interrupted by banging on the meeting room door from others demanding to know when we’d be finished.
Nor does the rectangular meeting room we’re booked into at HR magazine towers provide the best setting for the walking exercise, as we narrowly avoid banging our shins on the maze of chairs stuffed into the space.
Things don’t get much easier once I’m left to my own devices in the week following the session. While traipsing through snow on my lunch break I’m thinking more of my inappropriate footwear than the beauty of the wintry scene around me. My attempts to keep a list of what I’m grateful for (another exercise encouraged by Winterbourne) are quickly forgotten five or six emails into the day.
After five days what I’m noticing more than anything is how difficult I find it to focus. That, however, is a peculiarly useful realisation. As I reach day seven I begin to identify, without beating myself up, when my thoughts are drifting towards worry. I start to zone in on the tiny details of my surroundings. And things do temporarily feel lighter.
The practice of ‘just being aware’, it turns out, is deceptively hard. But the progress I’ve begun to make encourages me that when it comes to taming my thoughts mindfulness might just work.
Rachel Muller-Heyndyk is news reporter at HR magazine