A blog by Araminta Jonsson

Mindfulness has been defined as a mental state or trait that can be developed and nurtured[1], primarily it is concerned with 'being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present[2]’. Eckhart Tolle in his critically acclaimed book, The Power of Now, was one of the first to bring the importance of being present to the world at large. In his book he explains that by being present you overcome your own judgments and your mind’s limitations. Instead of focusing on thoughts about the past and the future, you become aware of the exact moment you are in. Once you do this, he says you will discover a sense of peace that in turn will give you a renewed sense of purpose.

The belief that underpins mindfulness is that we have more control over our cognitive functions than societal controls may leave us feeling capable of. Mindfulness is understood as a self-motivated process, bringing intentional focus on our attention to our thoughts, feelings, sensations and observations, and the ability to engage with, and be aware of, these experiences in an objective and non-judgemental way[3].

The practice is based on ancient Eastern meditation, and was brought to the West by Thich Nhat Hanh in the early 1970s. Mindfulness endorses a less passive, and more active, present ‘mode of mind[4]’. This practice is believed to enhance awareness and understanding of internal processes and prevent reactive patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving[5] - sometimes a “vicious cycle” that often leads to self-destructive behaviour, such as addiction, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive behaviours, among others. The aim is to achieve a “detached” state of observation, with “openness, curiosity, and acceptance”[6].

Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the first to study the benefits of mindfulness for pain reduction and his study in 1986 described the process of pain reduction, occurring from “an attitude of detached observation toward a sensation when it becomes prominent in the field of awareness, and to observe with similar detachment the accompanying but independent cognitive processes which lead to evaluation and labelling of the sensation as painful, as hurt.” So by separating the physical sensation from the emotional and cognitive experience of pain, the patient is believed to have the capacity to reduce the pain[7].

More recently in a study done only this year, Lara Hilton and colleagues created an evidence map which supports Kabat-Zin’s findings around mindfulness and pain. In fact, the conclusion they drew with their map was that there is evidence that mindfulness has positive effects on things like ‘chronic illness, pain, substance use, depression, anxiety, perceived stress, somatization, cancer support, and IBS.[8]’ Also of interest within their research was a summary of the most common mindful interventions used and what they were used for:[9]

  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) - MBSR involves teaching of body scan or yoga to encourage observation and acceptance of painful or unpleasant sensation, thoughts, or emotions rather than “cognitively appraising” them and increasing anticipatory anxiety/avoidance
  • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) - MBCT encourages acceptant observation of negative thoughts and emotions rather than their cognitive appraisal triggering ruminative negative thoughts, and habitual emotional reactivity.
  • Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) - MBRP teaches relapse prevention skills, and non-judgmental, open and acceptant observation of cravings. It aims to decouple the negative thoughts and emotions that are associated with cravings, and relapse.
  • Mindfulness Training for Smoking (MTS) - MTS provides targeted training in how to apply mindfulness to specific determinants of a particular condition.
  • Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) - MORE teaches neutral, open, and acceptant observation of painful sensations. It also incorporates positive psychology, and behavioral techniques directed towards neuroscientific underpinnings of addiction.

However, most evidence found to support mindfulness focuses on the effects on psychological wellbeing as opposed to pain. According to Katherine Weare from the University of Southhampton, when facilitated correctly and when practised regularly, mindfulness has been shown the potential to improve mental health and well‐being, mood, self‐esteem, self‐regulation, positive behaviour and academic learning[10].

In the last few years promoting emotional well-being in schools has become central to UK government policy, with the intention that it soon be delivered through the national curriculum. There has been said to have been a "drive" in education for evidence-based programs that consider the "whole child"[11] , and not a sole focus on academic performance which has been reported as being a key factor of childhood anxiety.

Research has strongly established that children’s psychological, emotional, and social well-being influences their future physical and mental health, educational outcomes, social prospects, and quality of life in adulthood[12]. Thereby suggesting that promoting and practicing mindfulness could endorse the positive psychological functioning and emotion regulation capacities that children require[13] as they grow into adulthood, and then apply these behavioural mechanisms into the workplace[14].

In 2015 Shadi Beshai and colleagues conducted a feasibility trial[15], which evaluated a mindfulness-based programme customised for teachers. Participants were asked to complete self-reports which measured stress, well-being, mindfulness, and self-compassion at baseline and after the completion of the programme. Results revealed that those practicing mindfulness reported a substantial decrease in stress, and substantial increases in well-being after completing the programme in comparison to their those in the comparison group that did not practice mindfulness.

As research has continued and expanded its scope over the years, other professional organisations are adopting and integrating mindfulness into workplace functioning to improve and support performance in employees. Prominent organisations such as Google, Apple and Nike offer employees mindfulness with positive results[16] [17].

Emerging literature in organisational psychology and management suggests that mindfulness is linked to better workplace functioning[18] and recent findings from research on people who work as “front-line” professionals in emergency services suggest that cultivating resilience through mindfulness can help to prevent psychological distress, burnout and vicarious trauma[19].

Research findings such as these strongly suggest that by adopting and integrating an open, non-judgemental and perceptive ideology into everyday practices can increase our ability to cope with the increasing pressures and challenges of our lives, starting with school. The research discussed here supports the argument that If we start educating school age children around the practices of mindfulness, we will create a strong foundation of coping mechanisms, enabling children to develop the resilience and motivation to overcome challenges, and thereby improving their wellbeing throughout their lives.