If you have been following my social media channels in the last couple of weeks, you cannot fail to have noticed I have been posting more and more about mindfulness, in particular mindful moments. The latest example is a thirty second video of a fountain and pond, but I have used short clips of woodland walks and even a mollusc in an aquarium to create posts offering my followers a mindful moment.
Given that my social media profiles were created to publicise my writing and in particular my book Free City, you might be wondering why the sudden focus on mindfulness in my posts. Those people who know me personally may find themselves even more confused, as mindfulness and the wellbeing industry is not something I usually have much time for. A favourite, if not particularly funny, joke of mine goes something like;
Always remember to reach for the stars, because even if you miss, you will be millions of kilometres away from me with your self-improvement nonsense
I know, it’s more than a little harsh. For many people, self-improvement and motivational writing can be a great help in getting them through difficult times or dealing with their difficulties. As a psychiatrist, I should really be more understanding what helps people get through their day (and in part my new found push for mindfulness is an effort to do just that).
My hostility towards the wellbeing industry stems not so much from the people who find help and comfort, but more so from some of the proponents of wellbeing products, especially those who offer a quick fix to life’s difficulties. Anything which suggests conquering fears in a day, or losing weight in a week, is more than likely gibberish. I am not saying people can not improve their health or wellbeing, if I thought that then medicine and psychiatry were the wrong career choice. What I am opposed to is the miracle cure for whatever particular problem someone is dealing with, and I am afraid I am guilty of tarring an entire industry with the same brush.
One such area of skepticism is mindfulness. Short of living in a cave lacking WiFi for the last decade or so, you cannot have failed to notice the rise and rise of mindfulness and mindful ideas in almost every aspect of life. From schools and the workplace, to self-help books and, yes, social media, mindfulness has been promoted as a cure-all by a wide variety of groups and people (some who know what they are talking about, many who I suspect do not).
This ubiquitous approach to mindfulness for seemingly everything from anxiety to toothache drove my derision of the idea as a fad lacking any evidence to support it. I was confident the idea would peak and then fizzle away. But clearly it has not, and thankfully my hostility has tempered a little. Do I think mindfulness is a cure-all? No. But do I think it can help some people with some problems? Definitely yes.
My mindfulness journey began a couple of years ago while I was still completing my psychiatry training. Two semi-related events happened which led me to gain a better understanding of mindfulness, and an appreciation of the benefits it can bring to people’s lives.
The first was while teaching a group of medical students at the university. I had been asked to deliver a session on anxiety, during which I was to run a brief relaxation session using mindfulness elements. This involved having the students lie on the floor and focus on a passage I was reading to anchor themselves in the present moment, a key feature of mindfulness.
When I first heard about the content of the session, I had to stifle a laugh. I fully expected the students to not so politely tell me to get lost when I asked them to lay on the floor. But to their credit, every single student in a class of around twenty lay down, shut their eyes and followed the session. And afterwards, well the consensus was a more relaxed and focussed group. Some people had found the exercise pointless, but the majority felt it at least useful, with a couple asking for copies of the exercise to complete themselves at home.
The second event occurred around the same time while I completed my Masters degree. I was doing this part time while working and teaching (hence the tenuous link). The final part of the degree was a dissertation. I had decided I wanted to complete a literature review on a topic related to anxiety disorders (a particular interest of mine). After completing a couple of literature searches, it was clear the hot topic in anxiety management was mindfulness, and I managed to find a relatively under-reviewed area involving mindfulness and smartphone apps as the focus of my paper.
I don’t mind admitting I was fully expecting mindfulness-based apps to be no better than placebo. I also don’t mind admitting I was entirely wrong, or at least partly wrong. For some conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the evidence for the apps suggested they were no better than placebo. But for conditions such as panic disorder, social phobia and generalised anxiety disorder, the apps did appear to help people, in a few cases better than other accepted treatment options.
I like to think of myself as a scientist, and like any good scientist presented with the evidence, I needed to change my preconceived beliefs. I had been wrong to dismiss mindfulness as just a fad. For some people with some conditions, it can be helpful, and it feels I am as good a person as any to offer mindful moments to those who wish to partake.
While I have explained a little of my journey from dismissing mindfulness to accepting it in some circumstances, you might still be wondering why I have suddenly begun posting mindful moments in the last month or so? I think there are a couple of answers to this question.
Firstly, I think anxieties are riding particular high at the moment for a lot of people. During the height of lockdown, people were worried about their health and that of their families, students were (and still are) worried about exams and results, while their parents were and still are worried about their jobs and whether they will be able to pay the mortgage or rent. As I mentioned early, anxiety is a professional area of interest, but it is also something a lot of people can experience without it ever quite reaching the point they need to see a psychiatrist like myself. If mindfulness can help alleviate anxiety, then offering even a brief moment to orientate to the present could help someone feel a little calmer and in control.
The second reason is also linked to the COVID pandemic (isn’t everything this year?) in that travel plans have been significantly disrupted, and there is certainly little prospect of travelling abroad for the foreseeable future. So, in an effort to have a break and time away from home and the computer screen, Sarah and I have been taking more short trips away. I am fortunate to live close to some beautiful parts of the world, and these locations have offered me ample opportunity to snap short clips for people to relax to.
While many of the clips have been on woodland walks (at the same time forest bathing, shinrin’yoku 森林浴, another idea for wellbeing which I may make a future post about) or when visiting the grounds of stately homes, I have also taken videos closer to my home, even in the back garden, to show a mindful moment can be found anywhere. Getting out into the countryside to enjoy the open spaces and fresh air can be great for people’s wellbeing, but even if someone cannot get away from the bustle of the city, they can still find a moment to focus on the moment.
During my travels over the last couple of months, I have been snap happy with my new phone (is that a third reason for the rise of mindfulness moments…) so I have plenty of material going forwards. The response to my posts has been so far positive, so I do not intend to stop any time soon. If even just a handful of people find my mindful moments helpful, or lead to them exploring mindfulness further, then I would see it a success. If you want to see more, let me know in the comments. Have an idea for mindfulness or other wellbeing ideas you would like to discuss, send me a message. If you want me to stop my mindful posting, well, make sure you reach for the stars…