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A lawyer finds evidence that mindfulness is more than a buzzword

As a litigation lawyer I often found myself over-engineering courtroom scenarios in my head and when things didn't go to plan, it would retrospectively cause me mental angst. 

Many of my friends practising law are burnt out and share these sentiments, with some maintaining that whilst they may have the resilience and support to adequately deal with stress in the workplace, they are seeing an influx of their colleagues taking stress leave and suffering from anxiety and/or depression.

Recent studies show that 1 in 5 Australian employees have taken time off work due to feeling mentally unwell in the past 12 months and that untreated mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion per year.

Mindfulness practice is a simple and non-prescriptive measure we can use to combat stress, anxiety and depression. 

You can be forgiven for being a little flippant however whenever you hear the term mindfulness, as it seems to be the 'buzzword' used by every self-proclaimed, self-help guru out there. In essence though, mindfulness is simply: the psychological process of bringing our complete and undivided attention to our internal and external experiences, as they are occurring in the present moment. 

What are the benefits?

The benefits of practising mindfulness are abundant. From a mental health perspective, it's a simple, non-prescriptive measure that can be used to reduce and with prolonged practice, even eradicate: stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and addiction. 

Practising mindfulness cultivates the ability to become the observer of our thoughts as they arise in the moment. This facilitates a mental process that acknowledges we are the sum of our experiences and beliefs. It is from this position that we are able to minimise adverse judgements/decisions and unconscious bias.

Where's the evidence?

As a lawyer I demanded to see the evidence! So I did some research and found that functional magnetic resonance imaging has been used on subjects practising mindfulness, detecting the blood flow in their brain and finding that when practising mindfulness, the amygdala gland shrinks (part of the brain responsible for fight or flight) and only the pre-frontal cortex becomes enlivened. This is part of the brain associated with awareness, attention control, concentration and decision-making.

Mindfulness has been found to increase neuroplasticity, which in turn enhances mental agility, confidence and performance. It is because of this scientific evidence (transcending it from a mere buzzword to being a credible and powerful mental enhancement tool), that you now have a range of successful CEOs, business professionals and leading institutions utilising mindfulness to enhance performance.

The question I then asked myself was: If these successful bodies and people are using mindfulness to reduce stress and enhance their performance, why aren't I?

How can I start practising mindfulness?

1. Daily meditation: 

The most powerful tool that can be used to practice mindfulness is meditation. I've personally been meditating for 10 years now and don't believe I'd be able to get through my day without it. It anchors my being to everything that is important in my life and has taught me patience, tolerance and how to keep a bird's-eye perspective on things.

If you haven't meditated before or perhaps have tried and hadn't any luck in keeping your thoughts still, you should know that there are a multitude of ways you can meditate and it isn't necessarily about keeping your thoughts still at all. Similar to practising mindfulness, meditation is simply about being completely present in the moment.

A minimum of 15 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes at night is the recommended time one should mediate. If you're able to maintain this practice, after a few weeks you will feel a tremendous benefit has occurred to your mental wellbeing. 

2: Prolonged acts: 

Harvard University released a research paper that found we spend 47 per cent of our waking lives thinking about matters that have either occurred in the past, or may/may not transpire in the future and that it is this 'mind-wandering' that is the root cause of our unhappiness and various mental health concerns.

With our lives consisting of a series of mundane/prolonged acts, we become more desensitised to our environment. We repeat these actions so many times that they become a part of our subconscious programming and it is when we are in this 'auto-pilot' mode that our mind begins to 'wander.'

Mindfulness can prevent our mind wandering by intentionally spawning our undivided attention to the 'present moment' during any mundane/prolonged act that we perform during the course of our day. For example, it can be applied to the act of brushing our teeth, driving to work, having a cup of tea, going for a walk, or any other act we may consider to be mundane or part of our daily routine.

If we were to take the act of your lunchtime walk for instance, your sole objective would be to bring your attention to your internal and external experiences as they are occurring in the present moment and to sustain this attention control from the beginning to the end of your walk.


How mindfulness enhances mental health at work

With such a large percentage of our lives spent at work, employers not only stand to benefit from educating employees about mindfulness practice from a productivity and economical perspective but have the opportunity to enhance the mental health and wellbeing of their people, which is a win-win for everyone!

When practising mindfulness, our conscious mind confronts our subconscious programming, becoming the observer of our thoughts and anchoring our awareness to the present moment. When we're completely present in the moment, we're not concerned about matters outside our control, such as incidents that occurred in the past or matters that may or may not transpire in the future. 

Rather, we're operating from an objective and all encompassing bird's-eye perspective, enabling us to remain calm, create opportunities and make rational choices to life's events.

It is from this platform that we can exercise overlapping psychological processes such as critical thinking and emotional intelligence and execute decisions that are informed, affirmative and unbiased – skills that are fundamental in the legal profession! 

Life is 10 per cent of what happens to us and 90 per cent of how we react to it. By practising mindfulness each day we strengthen and empower our mind to react judiciously to difficult circumstances and make choices from an educated, informed and objective standpoint. This ultimately leads to calm, rational and positive decisions being made and overall enriched mental health in the workplace.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain