Mindfulness

Mindfulness has hit the news once again this week. It’s a buzzword; something which has been in and out of the media a fair few times over the past few years. It doesn’t have a particularly strong research base but is something which many people have found helpful. In my (somewhat limited) experience, people either seem to love it and find it really helpful, or hate it, find it difficult and sometimes find it distressing.

I am quite literally the last person I thought would ever write something on this topic. I am in no way qualified to offer any advice or teach any techniques. As for jumping on the buzzword wagon – one of my pet peeves is mental health buzzwords and ‘buzz topics’ – they do my head in (ironic). I don’t believe there is a ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to mental health and I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to advocate one coping method so heavily over others, particularly considering the ‘mental health favourite’ changes every few years.

I’ve come across mindfulness a few times since Mum was initially re-diagnosed. The first time was a few weeks post-diagnosis. I was on a personal development training day and we tried some mindfulness at the beginning. I absolutely hated it. I was supposed to keep focussed on my breathing, but unfortunately I became so focussed on this particular process that I forgot how to breathe, worried that I was never going to be able to breathe again, and ended up more stressed than when I began.

I next encountered it this February, about a year since Mum was re-diagnosed. One of the lovely people I volunteer with suggested I download the Headspace app. It has ten free sessions and to begin with, I really struggled with it. But, I persevered and by the end of the tenth session I was beginning to get it and I think it genuinely was beginning to help me deal more effectively with the various stresses and strains of life. I intended to carry on but then Mum gave dying a good go and it fell off the bottom of my ‘to do’ list.

I was reminded of it again at the Young Adult Carers session I attended last week (more on this another time!). We had someone come in and speak to us about mindfulness and how he used it. Again, we tried it; this time it was slightly different as it involved imagining a place but I was reminded how calming it can be for me, and how I really should do it more!

Today, I was working with a brilliant group of 17-year-olds. I was doing a session on what it might be like to study Psychology in Education at the University of York as part of a widening participation residential I’m working on. We were working on the BBC article about mindfulness in schools which was released yesterday. I started by asking them to sit through one ten minute session of the Headspace app to introduce them to mindfulness, we then read the article, discussed it and debated it.

During the debate, I asked these 27 highly motivated, delightful, intelligent young people how many of them had ever taken a day off school due to stress. Over half of them put their hands up. Over half.

To me, this is completely unacceptable and whatever weaknesses and strengths you may think our education system holds, to me, this shows an unacceptable level of stress on young people. Yes, it’s a small sample size. Yes, they might be particularly prone to stress. Yes, I know this is just one example. But personally, I believe young people should be at the heart of our education system and this level of stress suggests they are not. I could talk about this until next Christmas so I’ll stop there (for now!), but I just think it’s so wrong.

Back to mindfulness and I have to admit that I haven’t had chance to look into this article in great detail as I’m currently working on a residential with 7am-11pm days… but I do think it could be a good thing. Young people go through all sorts of crap during school: parental divorce, cancer in the family, bereavement, illness, difficult break-ups, homelessness – all sorts. We really don’t give them enough credit for it. What’s more, they don’t have the life experience, wisdom, and sense of self that adults possess. In my view, anything we can give these young people to deal with what life throws at them has got to be a bonus.

If you’re like me and life enjoys treating you like a paintball target at times, I’d recommend giving mindfulness a try. I don’t mean go to an evening class or spend your evening meditating. I’m not saying go out and buy a colouring book or go on a retreat in the Himalayas. I just think that when life is piling on the rubbish, we sometimes need all the help we can get, and that can mean trying something different. If this is you, then I challenge you to try mindfulness, just for a week. Not for long, just ten minutes or so each day – download an app (there’s tonnes of them) or find a YouTube video on it, and just try it for a week. You might be similar to me and forget to breathe to begin with, but I hope that by the end of the week, you will begin to notice a difference in how you’re feeling and managing things. If you’re not, then you’ve lost about 70 minutes of your life, for which I can only apologise, but let’s be honest – you’d probably just have been procrastinating something for those 70 minutes, anyway.

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