What is mindfulness? | How it works, getting started, and all about the benefits

Life is full of distractions. It's not uncommon to find our thoughts racing off onto things that are outside of our immediate control. Mindfulness is all about bringing our thinking back to the present moment. You can even use mindfulness techniques to manage anxiety and stress.

Take a look at the information below to find out more about mindfulness and how to get started on your own mindfulness journey.

Mindfulness at a glance

  • Mindfulness is about observing and accepting your thoughts without judgement
  • It is not a religious practice 
  • You can start to think mindfully wherever you are, at any time 
  • Mindfulness can help with anxiety and depression 
  • Do not try to “silence” your mind or suppress your thoughts
  • Focus on your senses and let your thoughts pass through you

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is all about being present and not allowing our thoughts to distract us. When we’re being mindful, we are aware of our senses and what is happening in the here and now, not what has happened or what might happen in the future. 

You might see mindfulness described as being “conscious” or “aware”. This is because mindfulness practice is all about recognising what’s physically around us whilst allowing thoughts to come and go without engaging with them.

Mindfulness is a mental practice designed to promote the recognition of our thoughts and senses without attachment or judgement.

How does mindfulness work?

At its essence, mindfulness is noticing thoughts and feelings without judgement. 

As human beings, we are inclined to push away troubling thoughts or unpleasant images in the interest of staying happy. However, there are no bad emotions. Emotions are there to be felt. 

In mindfulness, instead of aiming for a blank mind, where no thoughts are present, you practice the skill of becoming aware of your thoughts. By seeing thoughts arise, dwell and eventually dissolve, you learn how to acknowledge and move on from them. This is different from pushing thoughts away.

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

Research into mindfulness and its effect on the mind and body is still being researched, however some studies suggest can have a positive impact on our mental health. Exercises and worksheets incorporating mindfulness are regularly used by therapists and psychologists with their patients.

Adopting a mindful attitude is about recognising what’s around you, meaning you’re likely to become more alert and present in the moment. When we stop worrying about what’s happened in the past and what might occur in the future, we can fully enjoy all that the present has to offer.

Where do I start?

We recommend you start small and work your way up. As a beginner, that usually means setting some time aside when you feel relatively calm. You can do this at home or when you’re out for a walk.

When you’re ready, begin by observing the present moment as it is, without judgement or desire to change what is. Notice how your thoughts come and go and pull yourself back into the present if your mind starts to wander. 

Mindfulness is all about compassion. You should not cast judgement on any thought that arises. Remember, you are not trying to “silence” your mind. Instead, when a thought arises, recognise it and let it go before returning to the present moment. 

Useful mindfulness techniques

Whilst mindfulness isn’t a practice at its core, there are several exercises you can do to help you get more in touch with the present moment.

  • Focus on your breathing: when we concentrate on our breathing, we allow thoughts to come and go as they choose without interference. Focus on a deep inhale and holding it at the top before you release
  • Mindful eating: pay close attention to every bite and sensation when you’re eating. Pay special attention to the texture, temperature and how the foot feels in your mouth
  • Get in touch with your senses: take time to appreciate what you can immediately see, smell, feel and taste. This can help take your mind off the past and the future and often works best if you close your eyes for a moment
  • Body scan meditation: this is best performed at home when lying down on your bed or sofa. Start at the top of your body and focus your attention deliberately on your feet. When you’re done, move on to your ankles, continuing until you reach your head. This exercise can also help with falling asleep at night

What can mindfulness help with?

Take a look below to see what common symptoms and conditions mindfulness can help with:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Attention deficit
  • Memory issues
  • Chronic stress
  • Worry
  • Panic

Make a habit of mindful thinking

The best thing about mindfulness is that it can be done anywhere. Whether you’ve just missed your bus or you’re in the changing room before a big game, mindfulness has something to offer. 

When you start, finding somewhere calm to ground yourself in the present makes things a little easier. Once you’re comfortable with the fundamentals of mindful thinking, you can slowly start putting them into practice wherever you are. 

Mindfulness in the workplace

According to our Healthy Nation Index survey, 54% of people find that work has the biggest impact on their mental health. Fast-paced work environments are great for productivity, but they do mean that stress and burnout are on the rise. 

Encouraging employees to take their own mindful practice seriously in the workplace can help workers manage stress, increase focus, and foster a positive work atmosphere that’s beneficial for everyone. Employees who feel more relaxed and comfortable in themselves are likely to produce more work that’s higher in quality. 

Exercises like deep breathing practice, short meditation breaks, and mindful eating can all help improve productivity and reduce job-related stress. The best part is that it can be done at your desk or on the shop floor. Within five minutes mindfulness can have you feel grounded, present and ready to tackle your workload with a fresh intensity.

Frequently asked questions

Is mindfulness the same as meditation?

Mindfulness is all about paying attention to the world around us and recognising our thoughts as they come and go. Mindfulness is a quality that we carry with us rather than a practice, like meditation. 

When you are meditating, you are practising being mindful. Meditation is a practice that shares several similarities with mindfulness. The two are often used interchangeably to describe a state of mind where our thoughts do not control or define us, however meditation is a practice that usually requires a particular environment to be performed within, whereas mindfulness can be performed anywhere.

Is mindfulness religious?

The historic tradition of mindfulness has been associated with many religious figures and schools throughout history, however the practice itself has no official origin in any religion. Mindfulness has just as much power on a packed commuter train as it does in the Tibetan mountains. Spiritual in its origins, mindfulness is a way of being and moving through the world that has no ties to organised religion, but that is often referenced and practiced within many different belief systems.

Can mindfulness help with injury recovery?

Mindfulness has no clinically proven benefit when it comes to healing injuries or increasing the speed of your recovery.

What it can do is help us get a better perspective on an injury and what the recovery process means to us. Mindfulness helps us appreciate that things will improve and that the world around us has a lot to offer regardless of our injury.

Do I need to practice mindfulness every day?

Mindfulness is not something you necessarily have to sit down and practice at a specific time of the day. Mindfulness is all about going about your day-to-day life whilst paying attention to exactly what is going on around us.

When we feel overwhelmed and like everything is going wrong, mindfulness can help put our thoughts into perspective. You can practice mindfulness whenever and wherever. There’s no need to stop what you’re doing – simply take a moment to acknowledge what you can hear, see smell and taste around you. Pay special attention to your thoughts as they come and go freely. 

You will find that the more time you give to thinking and behaving in a mindful way, the easier it becomes. The most mindful people are mindful, they don’t even have to think about it.

I’m not sure I have the time

Unfortunately, this attitude only serves to increase stress. When we take time out of our day to appreciate the present moment, we are rewarded doubly later on.

If you find yourself rushing to make an appointment, you can shift your awareness to notice the way your feet feel as they slap against the pavement. Fed up with the heat during summer? Pay attention to the sound the birds make outside your window, or the way the sun feels against your skin instead.

What we generally do in a situation we perceive as negative is project into the future, worrying about how badly things will end up going. This usually ends up making us more anxious. Instead, try and shift your perspective and take in all that your surroundings have to offer on your way there. 

Last updated Tuesday 2 January 2024

First published on Friday 26 February 2016