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Does mindfulness meditation actually work? One sceptic put it to the test

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Lauren Geall
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Wondering whether mindfulness meditation could be the self-care technique you’ve been looking for all along? One self-confessed sceptic put it to the test.

I have always been sceptical of mindfulness meditation. Don’t get me wrong – I know it’s been a massive help for many people – but I’ve always been sure that it wasn’t the right approach for me. I saw it almost like the marmite of wellbeing: while many of the people I spoke to found the practice an essential part of their self-care routine, others had tried it and, like me, found that it hadn’t really done much for their mental health.

Here’s the thing – I have given mindfulness meditation a go in the past. A couple of years ago, when I was going through a really difficult period with my mental health, I had downloaded every mindfulness app I could find in an attempt to get my anxiety under control. I bought all the premium subscriptions, did all the research I could and practised mindfulness meditation at least once a day. I really wanted it to work, but besides a few moments of peace and quiet, I didn’t really get much out of it. Eventually, I decided it just wasn’t for me.

Of course, with the gift of hindsight, I now realise expecting my mental health to get better after a few sessions of meditation probably wasn’t very realistic. I’ve since been diagnosed with OCD and used therapy and antidepressants as part of my recovery – so expecting mindfulness to magically relieve me of my symptoms was a bit of a longshot.

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Still, just over three years later, I’ve remained personally sceptical about mindfulness meditation. As someone who writes about mental health and wellbeing as part of their job, I regularly write about mindfulness meditation as a method of self-care (and, as I’ve already said, I know lots of people find it incredibly helpful), but personally, I’ve always remained a bit averse to giving it another try.

But then came the coronavirus pandemic. There I was, minding my business, managing my anxiety and OCD as I have for the last couple of years, when suddenly the gravity of a massive global event marched right into my (and everyone’s) life. I, like many people, felt that familiar feeling of anxiety beginning to creep back into my everyday routine. Don’t get me wrong – my anxiety is nothing like it used to be – but it made me aware of how little attention I’d been paying to my mental health over the last couple of months. 

With this in mind, I decided to give mindfulness meditation a second chance. Instead of expecting it to treat my mental health condition and rid me of anxiety forever, I came at it from a relaxed perspective. At a time when so many of us are trying to take care of our mental health, could mindfulness meditation help me to feel more on top of my thoughts and feelings?

Breathe sign
At a time when so many of us are trying to take care of our mental health, could mindfulness meditation help me to feel more on top of my thoughts and feelings?

First of all, I had to decide which meditation app I was going to use. As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, a lot of the most popular apps – including Headspace, Calm, Balance and Sanvello – are offering a selection of their content for free. Eventually I decided upon Headspace’s “Basics” course, which is available to everyone as part of their “Weathering The Storm” series and promises to teach you the “fundamentals of meditation and mindfulness”. 

One of the trickiest parts of getting started with mindfulness meditation was, I hate to admit, finding the motivation to actually do it. I decided to do my meditation every night before I went to bed (mainly because that’s when my brain decides to worry about every single thing that happened that day), but putting aside that time to sit down and focus was harder than I expected. Turns out my attention span – and ability to just “be” – was much worse than I thought.

My mindful meditation diary

Day One

  • Finding the motivation to start this was more challenging than expected, but here we go
  • Noticing when your mind wanders is hard
  • The man’s voice is incredibly soothing though…
  • It was nice to not do anything for a bit, but I don’t feel any less anxious about the world

Day Two

  • Trying a slightly longer session today (about five minutes) because my mind has been all over the place
  • The body scan technique is actually so helpful – I noticed some tightness in my chest which I didn’t realise was there
  • Not feeling any less anxious, but I do feel more aware of what I’m actually feeling which is nice

Day Three

  • I actually looked forward to doing this today – who have I become?
  • Doing the body scan everyday has made it easier to notice more subtle feelings – I can feel how tight my shoulders are
  • I actually noticed when my mind was wandering without the man reminding me, and now I feel rather smug

Day Four

  • Meditation is becoming part of my bed time routine
  • My mind is all over the place, and trying to meditate today has… stressed me out a little? That feels counterproductive

Day Five

  • I’m back on my grind and ready to get my meditation game on
  • Decided the whole sitting up thing isn’t really for me, so am laying down under the covers instead
  • Can reveal that lying down was an incredibly good idea, especially because that’s when my mind often wanders 

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Day Six

  • I am struggling with the fact that you can’t really be ‘good’ at meditation, but trying to remind myself it’s not a side hustle I need to perfect (old habits die hard)
  • The word meditation makes this sound a lot harder than it actually is, by the way

Day Seven

  • Today I didn’t try too hard to make it a “good” session, and surprise surprise it was great
  • I feel like I’m getting to know myself and how my brain works, which is cool

The verdict

The guided sessions which make up Headspace’s “Basics” series consist of three different areas of focus, the first of which is a kind of “body scan” where the teacher asks you to consider how your body is feeling in the moment. It was this part of the meditation I actually found the most helpful. On one day, for example, I was able to identify that I was feeling more anxious than I realised simply by noticing the tightness in my chest. 

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Throughout the session you’re also asked to focus on your breathing – and redirect your focus when your mind (inevitably) wanders – and finally, let your mind run wild for a short period. I’m not going to beat around the bush here: focusing on your breathing, and only focusing on your breathing, is harder than it sounds. If, like me, your mind likes to run at one hundred miles a minute, chances are you’ll find this quite difficult. However, as I learned throughout my week of meditation, it’s completely OK if your mind is all over the place – it’s the act of bringing that focus back to your breath which really makes a difference.

Also PSA: you don’t have to sit and cross your legs as they do in the pictures – I particularly enjoyed the night I did it curled up under the covers.

A cat curled up under the covers
Practising meditation while tucked up in bed is a winning combination.

After my week of silent contemplation (read: three-five minutes per day), I am, much to the displeasure of my previous scepticism, a mindfulness convert. I wouldn’t say it’s done wonders for my mental health, but what it has done is teach me the power of sitting still.

Don’t get me wrong – I love being busy – but as someone who spends a bit too much time on social media, works a fast-paced job and tries hard to maintain a somewhat varied social life, I’ve lost the ability to sit down and “check in” with myself. It may sound cheesy, but taking the time to notice that tightness in your chest or explore the negative thought that’s been bringing you down is more valuable than you think. Give it a try sometime.

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Lauren Geall

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