How (and why) you need to pause
Finding time to pause in a mindful way is an essential part of braincare. But why is it so important?
When was the last time you took a moment to slow down?
If the answer isn’t today, this is permission to change that. Finding time to pause is an essential part of any braincare routine, along with the other four braincare behaviours. Mindfulness is a trendy term, but it’s hardly a new concept. In this article, we’ll look at what exactly mindfulness is, how to practise it, and crucially, why it’s important.
What is mindfulness?
There’s a lot of discussion about what counts as mindfulness. But we’re not here to gatekeep. If it involves slowing down and being aware of yourself and those around you, all with a degree of intentionality, then we’re here for it.
Being mindful isn’t about completely emptying your mind, or taking a vow of silence. It’s finding time to pause, so that you can feel present. Stay in the here and now. Which is, admittedly, easier said than done.
For lots of people, mindfulness evokes images of yoga and meditation, and that’s certainly one way to approach it. But there’s no need for it to be as structured as that. So whether you’re holding the lotus position, or doing a discreet breathing exercise, chanting a mantra, or lighting a candle in the bath. Relax. Pause. It’s good for you.
The science behind mindfulness
The sudden rise of mindfulness in the popular consciousness makes it easy to be sceptical. And scepticism is healthy—it’s a core tenet of scientific research. So we did some digging, to find out what the science actually says.
Mindfulness and mental health
We often refer to mindfulness as an effective technique to help with mental and emotional stability and well-being.
Researchers have conducted lots of studies (we’re talking thousands) looking into this, and meta-analyses suggest that mindfulness can be particularly effective in supporting mental health. It can also help regulate tension levels, with all the associated benefits to mental health.
At this point we should emphasise that, like most things in life, mindfulness isn’t a panacea—you won’t try one breathing exercise and become the Dalai Lama. But it’s an essential part of the puzzle. By regularly practising mindfulness, we can begin to address some of the underlying issues that have an effect on our mental health.
Mindfulness and compassion
Being mindful has also been shown to have some impact on our levels of compassion. This relates to the regulation of our stress responses, but we wanted to shine a light on it.
There’s evidence to suggest that regular mindfulness can lower activity in the amygdala (the “lizard brain”) and increase connections between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex, allowing us to react to stressors in a more considered, compassionate manner.
How mindfulness affects the structure of the brain
While there’s been less research into the physiological effects of mindfulness on the brain, it’s a growing area of study, with some noteworthy results. Studies suggest that regular mindfulness meditation is associated with larger quantities of grey matter in ageing brains.
Another set of studies found that mindfulness may have an impact on changing density of grey matter in different parts of your brain, reducing the mass of the amygdala and concentrating grey matter in parts of the brain responsible for emotional and social processing. The Harvard researchers also noticed an increase of grey matter in the cerebellum, which is responsible for motor skills and balance.
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How to be mindful
There’s no shortage of lists of activities for mindfulness. In fact, you can just scroll down the page to find a few suggestions of our own.
But mindfulness doesn’t need to exist in a separate space from your everyday life. Almost anything can be mindful, if you want it to be. Just follow three steps—observe, describe, and participate.
Take a moment, and look at something. Don’t glance at it. Try to perceive it, without any judgement. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be something sitting in front of you. Anything can be observed. And the more we pay attention to our surroundings, the easier it becomes to calm our minds, and ignore distracting thoughts.
How are you feeling? And what are you thinking? Answering these questions can feel a bit awkward. We aren’t taught how to think about thoughts and feelings in a meaningful way, but doing so can provide us with space to process our emotions. And once we can understand our emotions better, we can better understand and connect with external situations.
With so much external stimulation, it’s easy to turn on autopilot and go through the motions. If you’ve ever been stuck with a large data entry task, you’ll know the feeling.
But getting stuck in, and actively participating in the things that we do, is rewarding in itself. In doing so, we can tune out the distractions from our environment, and be truly present in the moment. That’s about as mindful as it gets.
Ideas for mindful activities
Everyone’s braincare routine is different, and everyone will have different ways of finding time to pause. But if you’re after some inspiration, here are some of the things that work for us.
Gratitude is an excellent introduction to mindfulness. No classes, no equipment, just fifteen minutes and a way to record your thoughts. Each day, think of three things that you are grateful for, and write them down (or type them out, or record them, whatever works for you). They don’t need to be from that day, just three things that you’re feeling. Nothing’s too small—it could even be an above-average coffee.
Go for a walk
This one doesn’t need too much explaining. We all know the way that going out for a breath of fresh air can clear the head, and help us put our immediate emotions into perspective. Bonus points if the walk is in some green space.
Peace, meditation, and gardens have always gone well together. Whether we’re talking Zen Buddhism, Voltaire, or the local farmer’s market, gardening is at the centre of many mindfulness philosophies and practices. It engenders a connection to our environment, and the combination of physical and mental exercise is perfect for tuning out the noise. And if you don’t have a garden, even something small is better than nothing. A ZZ plant, for example, is virtually impossible to kill (please don’t write in if you manage to kill one).
Listen to music
Another one that is fairly self-explanatory. Closing the door and turning up the volume can provide serious catharsis. Just try to match the genre to your mood—death metal at the wrong time isn’t always especially calming.
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Possibly the most famous mindfulness techniques, we’ve left meditation until last for a reason. People find it intimidating. Media depictions of meditation as a mystic practice, or something deeply spiritual can be off-putting, but it doesn’t have to be like that. There are a huge number of ways to meditate, and chances are, you’ll be able to find one that works well for you.
So take more time to pause. It’s one of the 5 braincare behaviours, and without giving yourself that break, your brain can get overwhelmed, and stop working as well as it might.