At the beginning of a New Year many of us make commitments to change things. It may be to eat more healthily, drink less, take more exercise or be more assertive at work. It may be aspirational, to secure a promotion or gain a qualification. We start off enthusiastically but sadly very quickly many of us fall by the wayside.
Mindfulness can help you keep your resolve and make the changes you want.
Mindfulness is simply training for the brain, and taking a regular mindfulness meditation practice can actually change your brain in a positive way. Scientists studying the brains of people who meditate have shown changes in the cerebral cortex 1, 2, 3, the outer layer of the brain composed of folded grey matter, which is responsible for higher-level functions, such as consciousness, language, intelligence, and memory. Changes have also been shown in the anterior cingulate cortex 4, part of the brain responsible for controlling and managing difficult emotions 5, as well as in the amygdala, which can be considered as the brain’s emotional processor 1.
These changes to the brain underpin the benefits of practising mindfulness:
• improved cognitive ability
• better emotional regulation
Mindfulness can develop the qualities that allow us to make and sustain behavioural changes – but first we need to establish our mindfulness practice.
10 tips for establishing a mindfulness practice
1. Set your intention
A key component of developing a mindfulness practice is setting your intention. Asking yourself “why am I practising?” Try and be specific. It may be to feel less stressed, to sleep better, to be more focused or to improve a sport you do.
2. Start with a short practice
Set yourself up to succeed by starting with a short realistic practice that you will be able to maintain. Research has shown that short 10-minute practices taken regularly can change the brain 6. You can even start with less and build it up.
3. Set a time of day
You are more likely to practise if you set aside a set time. First thing is often best as then it is “out of the way” and is less likely to get squeezed out by pressures of the day. Perhaps try linking it to another activity, so just as you start work, before you switch on the computer, or even as you travel to work on the train or the bus. If morning doesn’t work perhaps you have 10 minutes at lunchtime or at the end of your day, when you finish work or just before you go to bed. If necessary, put it in your diary and set a reminder.
4. Avoid distractions
As you start to practise it is useful to avoid distractions, switch off your phone, and stop social media alerts. Find a quiet place if you can or use headphones. Ask not to be disturbed if you are at work or at home with family. It is helpful to close your eyes to limit distractions and increase concentration, or simply lower your gaze.
5. Set yourself a challenge
Perhaps make a commitment to practising for at least 5 days a week, establishing your practice across your working week where there might be more of a routine. You could do this for a month and then try adding a day at the weekend.
6. Practice with a friend
It can be helpful to have a practice “buddy”. This is someone who you practise with or who you can discuss your practise with. This provides you with support and helps you continue your practice. It may be possible to arrange a group of interested people at work and find a regular time to practise together. This could be just once a week.
7. Keep a record or practice diary
The changes are often subtle at the beginning so it is useful to make a note of your experiences. You may notice patterns, that you sleep better, are less stressed or more focused, when you practise. These observations may help reinforce the benefit of practising.
8. You are worth it
No matter how busy your day gets remind yourself that you deserve 10 minutes to benefit your health and wellbeing.
9. Keep a growth mindset
Too often we find ourselves in a fixed mindset, convinced that we are innately good at certain things, no good at others and it can’t be changed. This is not the case. When you get caught up in believing you are doing things wrong and that you are just not any good at meditating, keep at it. Effort will be rewarded.
10. Just do it
Just like physical exercise you will only get the benefit if you practise. So when you don’t feel like it or can’t be bothered sit down and just practise.
If you are interested in practising why not try our short mindfulness meditation it is only 8 minutes.
1. Hölzel B.K., Carmody J., Evans K.C., Hoge E.A., Dusek J.A., Morgan L., …Lazar S.W. (2010). Stress Reduction Correlates with Structural Changes in the Amygdala. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 5: 11–17.
2. Lazar S., Kerr C., Wasserman R.H., Gray J.R., Greve D. N., Treadway M. T., McGarvey M, Quinn B.T., Dusek J.A., Benson H., Rauch S.L.,, Moore C.I. and Fisch B.(2005). Meditation Experience is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness. NeuroReport Vol 16 No.17 28 November
3. Luders E., Kurth F., Mayer E.A., Toga A.W., Narr K.L. and Gaser C.G. (2012). The Unique Anatomy of Meditation Practitioners: Alterations in Cortical Gyrification. Human Neuroscience Vol 6 Article 34
4. Tang, Y.Y., Lu, Q., Geng, X., Stein, E.A., Yang, Y., & Posner, M.I. (2010). Short-Term Meditation Induces White Matter Changes in the Anterior Cingulate. PNAS 107: 15649–15652.
5. Stevens F.L., Hurley R.A. and Taber K.H. (2011). Anterior Cingulate Cortex: Unique role in cognition and emotion. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 23:2
6. Moore A., Gruber T., Derose J. and Malinowski P. (2012). Regular, brief mindfulness meditation practice improves electrophysiological markers of attentional control. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. February; Vol. 6: 18