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Mindfulness: what’s the point?

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In a recent article by BPS Research Digest, Christian Jarrett claims that ‘perhaps teens are too cynical to benefit from mindfulness’. Based off negative research findings by Flinders University in Australia, the article explains a study in which a group of children were exposed to mindfulness practices to see whether they showed any observable benefits. According to the study, there are none.

As quoted by Jarrett, researchers stated that ‘more “cynical” early adolescents require increased life challenges before the relevance of socioemotional tools becomes evident’. In other words, kids are too sceptical and they need to suffer before mindfulness becomes an option. Let me unpack that a little bit.

You’ve undoubtedly heard about mindfulness by now. It’s everywhere. In addition to hygge and lykke and Helmsley + Helmsley, it feels like the notions of living like a Scandinavian rabbit-person are being preached at us non-stop. The last thing you want to do after all that is to think about thinking, right? As a result of this, there is a certain iffyness associated with mindfulness practices.

“You are never too young to need mental health attention”

Despite improvement, there is still a stigma around mental health and, as something often recommended to people with mental health issues, mindfulness gets lumped in on that prejudice. With all the #fakenews and general horror of the modern world, taking a minute to acknowledge your own existence can seem unnecessary and also kind of terrifying. No doubt the younger generation is cynical as all hell. No wonder the results were negative. Right?

Firstly, cynicism is a sliding scale. People can be cynical about some things but super on board with others. I, for instance, think meditation is fantastic and that karma is a thing, but I don’t believe in God. Some would call that inconsistent, but it’s the truth for most people. So, claiming that teens as an aggregate group are ‘too cynical’ for anything is a gross generalisation. Since when do teenagers make sense at all?

Train station mindfulness

Secondly, and this one is important, you are never too young to need mental health attention. Saying that kids don’t have ‘increased life challenges’ is a very risky thing to claim, as well as being totally untrue. In a moving speech at the Labour conference last week,  16 year-old Lauren Stocks stated that she was told 3 in 10 people in any given classroom suffered with a mental illness. Passionately, she rebuked this, saying ‘That is bollocks. It’s a good half, if not more’.

It might be a long way away from us now but I’m sure most people remember how hard being a young teenager can be. The study claimed that ‘Further research [was] required to identify the optimal age’ to begin delivering mindfulness. The optimal age, in my opinion, doesn’t exist.

“Mindfulness is more about how you do things than the things you do”

I understand that not much about this article so far has really talked about what mindfulness is. Aside from yoga class, the only professional interaction I’ve had with mindfulness teaching is a few guided sessions and what I’ve learned from Student Minds training.

To chill out, I’m more likely to play music than go for an early morning walk. I’m more likely to talk to a friend than sit and tap into my internal monologue. Thing is, all of these activities can count as mindful practice. Most people will already have these rituals in place, these things that make them slow down and take stock with themselves and the world around them.

“It’s about acknowledgement and recognition”

At the risk of sounding like complete mumbo jumbo, mindfulness is more about how you do things than the things  you do. It’s about acknowledgement and recognition towards your physical, mental and emotional state and keeping in contact with all different aspects of your health.

So yes, this isn’t a new thing. Most people have some level of mindfulness in practice naturally. The stigma, however, can often be attributed to the fact that the dialogue about mindfulness usually comes hand in hand with that of anxiety or depression. True, it is often prescribed to people with these illnesses, but it isn’t a medication in the same way that anti-depressants are.

“Mindfulness is like taking your brain to the gym”

For example, when you have high blood pressure your doctor will likely give you prescription drugs to help manage this. But the drugs won’t be enough. Your doctor will also tell you to eat healthy, to go to the gym and stop drinking as much. Mindfulness is like taking your brain to the gym.

People don’t exclusively go to the gym to get their blood pressure down, they go to stop their bodies ever getting to that point. Practicing mindfulness works in the same way. To follow the metaphor, being mindful regularly strengthens the muscles in your brain so that you can endure more.

“Your brain muscles are more equipped to deal with the strain”

It’s tough to begin with, clearing your mind completely first time would be like running a marathon in your first trip to the gym. But practice makes perfect. It means that if something bad happens further down the line, your brain muscles are more equipped to deal with the strain in a healthy way instead of breaking down.

This study might have yielded negative results, but this doesn’t devalue the practice of mindfulness. ‘Increased life challenges’ won’t be a problem if kids learn tools early on so that they can deal with them. There’s no age to start being healthy, and mental health needs to be a part of that narrative.

Elise Jackson

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