Should you make a habit of living mindfully?

You've seen the statistics. The 2016/17 New Zealand Health Survey showed one in six adults have been diagnosed with a mental disorder at some point, and one in 12 Kiwis have experienced psychological distress in the last four weeks.

Incidents of suicide have also increased for the fourth year in a row.

Mental health services are stretched beyond capacity, funding shortages are still contributing to the problem, and your best chance of getting immediate help looks like putting your life in maximum danger.

In the fight for mental wellness, "mindfulness" has become a buzzword.

Practitioners stress it's no panacea, but learning to live mindfully can improve compassion and productivity, reduce reliance on medication for some, and even benefit future generations.

Tamara Waugh, founder of the social enterprise the Happiness Experiment, has created an app aimed at getting us into the habit of being grateful for three specific good things each day. 

The work has real purpose for Ms Waugh, 36, who makes plenty of time for mindfulness in her personal life.

"Stemming from childhood sexual abuse, I developed drug addictions and major mental illness," she says.

"I was on medication for a really long time. For my 30th birthday, I overindulged and ended up in hospital again. I decided, from that moment, I didn't want to take medication, it wasn't working for me."

Should you make a habit of living mindfully?
Photo credit: Newshub.

Ms Waugh, who has now been practising mindfulness through gratitude, and also meditation, daily for the past six years, says the transition away from medication wasn't easy at the time.

"A friend challenged me to 13 minutes of meditation a day, and logging 100 days of three good things each day and, in the beginning, I didn't think I could do the meditation, it was really hard."

Ms Waugh posted on Facebook to keep her accountable.

"That built an organic following. It led me to the research and study of neuroscience, positive practice and Buddhism. To this day, I still do the gratitude practice, and I'm more stable than I've ever been," she says.

"I encourage people to do it for 100 days and over the course of that time, after seven to 10 days, you get into the habit of thinking of the good things during your day," Ms Waugh explains.

Being grateful connects to mindfulness because it gets you thinking about what you're grateful for in the moment, Ms Waugh says.

"Then you start looking out for your three good things and in doing that and paying attention to them you're developing a mindful practice," Ms Waugh says.

Ms Waugh says the habit helps create a more solutions-based attitude, and increases compassion, self-awareness, productivity and focus.

Mindfulness doesn't stop at smartphone apps.

Kati Kasza, who completed an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course with Mindfulness Auckland, says the course was a good long-term investment in wellbeing/self-care. 

Kati Kasza.
Kati Kasza. Photo credit: Margot Duane.

"It gave me the tools to interrupt auto pilot. The more I practiced, the more I became aware of habits that could be easily tweaked by a simple shift in mindfulness."

However, mindfulness has copped considerable flack for being too broadly defined, according to two Melbourne University psychology researchers.

"A brief exercise in self-reflection prompted by a smart-phone app on your daily commute may be considered the same as a months-long meditation retreat. Mindfulness can both refer to what Buddhist monks do and what your yoga instructor does for five minutes at the start and end of a class," the researchers say.

Director and facilitator at Mindfulness Auckland, Sue Dykes, sounded hesitant as she provided me with her definition of the concept.

"Mindfulness is when we're paying attention to what's happening in the present moment. You would probably be mindful while you remove a prickle from your child's foot for example. It's paying attention and allowing what we find, not resisting something, giving it space."

Ms Dykes emphasises mindfulness isn't a catch-all for everyone and everything.

"Mindfulness is not a quick-fix, not a one-size-fits-all either. People will go to therapists or councillors now and they might just be told 'be mindful and everything will be fine'. It doesn't happen overnight."

Mindfulness is just one tool. A 2015 study showed relapse rates of depression to be similar between those who took medication, compared with those who were helped off of medication and were walked through a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy course.

Ms Dykes says it's particularly important to have a teacher guide you through mindfulness practice if you are using it as a technique to cope with mental illness.

"For people with severe depression, or other acute mental health issues, such as psychosis, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] or severe anxiety, forms of mindfulness can be useful, but this needs to be taught by an appropriately qualified mental health practitioner or meditation teacher."

That said, Ms Dykes also encourages us to incorporate mindfulness into our daily lives by "pausing from time to time and connecting with, for example, the sensations of our feet on the floor, or the sounds around us."

"Cues such as red lights or the phone ringing can be reminders to connect with these, or the sensations of our body breathing."

Mindfulness practices are not silver bullets. But for most of us, a daily dose of gratitude, pausing and connecting to the world around us and maybe even checking out a mindfulness course means we're honing one more self-care tool to value our mental health.

You're never too young to learn mindfulness.

Ms Waugh had her daughter start working out her three good things at the tender age of three.

"Her intuition and compassion for people is always something that stands out when adults meet her," Ms Waugh assures me.

Where to get help.
Where to get help. Photo credit: Newshub.
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