Mindfulness is a stress-reduction technique designed to help improve focus, awareness and attention. By becoming more aware of your thoughts you can gradually learn to select the ‘useful’ or helpful thoughts while simultaneously observing then disregarding unhelpful ones. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress levels and promote a sense of control and autonomy in thinking. Mindfulness may play an important role in managing wellbeing and maintaining calm in a stressful landscape.
These reviews are provided as a guide only, and self-access materials should not be used as a substitute for medical advice or management by a healthcare professional where indicated.
For information on accessing professional health care, consult:
Books on Mindfulness
The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living, by Dr. Russ Harris, Exisle Publishing
The Happiness Trap is an international best-seller by Dr Russ Harris, a clinical psychologist and one of the leading Australian voices in mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The name might not grab you, but the underlying principles of the book are important. Dr Harris essentially interrogates every myth we have about happiness and explains how these are making you miserable. In order to achieve solid foundations in our own wellbeing, he argues, we need to forget what society tells us happiness is, and move on to techniques that will actually make us satisfied, holistic individuals.
The underpinning message here is that it’s OK to think and feel the full gamut of human emotion — including discomfort, stress or frustration — and that we should accept these as inevitable in everyday human existence. We shouldn’t pretend these thoughts and feelings don’t happen, or feel ashamed of them, or spend our lives trying to rid ourselves of them.
The best thing about the Happiness Trap is that it’s well written, easy to follow and makes perfect sense when you read it. Dr Harris will take you through mindfulness techniques with practical exercises and self-assessment, while simultaneously acknowledging that it’s a difficult process to master. It takes practice, and patience, and a kind of self-forgiveness we don’t practice very much. Expect to be a little rusty at first. If nothing else, read it because it’s a different perspective and provides insight into the human mind that you wouldn’t necessarily have considered.
Whenever I made a mistake at work, no matter how trivial, two words would automatically blaze into my head: ‘I’m incompetent.’ At first I would take the words quite seriously. I’d get really upset, believe they were the absolute truth … These days the same two words still pop up when I make a mistake, but the difference is now they don’t bother me — because I don’t take them seriously. I know that these words are just an automatic response, like the way your eyes shut whenever you sneeze. The fact is, we don’t choose most of the thoughts in our head … We have many thousands of useless or unhelpful thoughts every day. And no matter how harsh, cruel, silly, vindictive, critical, frightening or downright weird they may be, we can’t prevent them from popping up. But just because they appear doesn’t mean we have to take them seriously… these thoughts are not a problem as long as I see them for what they really are: just a few words that popped into my head.
Brilliant Mindfulness: How the mindful approach can help you towards a better life, by Cheryl A. Rezek, Pearson Publishing
Brilliant Mindfulness is a manual which guides you — through an included CD and diagrams — through the relaxation techniques which are essential to the practice. Mindfulness isn’t solely about relaxation — and shouldn’t be confused with it — but in order to achieve a quiet state in order to practice it you first need to shut off enough of the distractions around you. Brilliant Mindfulness is especially useful in this regard — it details the practical, physical aspects of mindfulness training which you can do on a daily basis to help achieve calm and reduce your stress. Once you have achieved that calm, you can then listen to your thoughts and start improving your focus.
If you’re looking for a more practical resource, or if you’re already familiar with the basic principles of what mindfulness is, this is a good one to start with. The accompanying CD is especially useful in that you can just listen and be guided towards mindful awareness.
Mindfulness meditation or mindful awareness is very different from relaxation. The main issue is that of intent. In relaxation one looks to unwind and to switch off. Meditation is about switching on to yourself. It’s about becoming alert to what is happening within your mind, body and self as well as your interaction with the world around you in the present moment.
Mindfulness works to bring about an intentional awareness to you, about you, without you and for you. It encourages you to know the situation, bring awareness of it into consciousness and to then decide how you might like to respond. For example, if you’re feeling anxious you can bring your focus to your anxiety, recognise it and either be annoyed or angry that you’re feeling this way and go deeper into the state of anxiety or you can acknowledge it, focus on your breathing and allow the feeling to dissipate without being harsh or cruel to yourself.
The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (6th Edition), by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman & Matthew McKay, New Harbinger Publications
If you’re a fan of DIY projects you’ll like the Stress Reduction Workbook. In order to use it, you’ll probably want to order yourself your own copy as the book contains exercises and activity logs which you fill out as you work through it. The book even provides a script for you to record yourself so that you can induce yourself into relaxation — and not have to hear someone else’s voice. That’s useful because in times of stress when you think back to your meditation practice you’ll hear your own voice talking to you and that will make it more effective.
This is another practical resource to the science of mindfulness and meditation techniques, and has a solid grounding in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is used by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists the world over to aid people with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders, but can also be used just to reduce your natural stress levels and foster an awareness of your thought patterns. Often it’s these thought patterns which cause our stress levels and anxiety to increase, so mastering them will mean you have more autonomy and control over the way you think and feel on a daily basis. The book works particularly in helping you identify the triggers to the negative thought patterns, and works on helping you stop these triggers spiralling into a cycle.
The ability to recognise how your body reacts to the stressors in your life can be a powerful skill. Most people are more aware of the weather, the time of day, or their bank balance than they are of the tension in their own bodies of their personal stress response. Your body registers stress long before your conscious mind does. Muscle tension is your body’s way of letting you know that you are stressed, and body awareness is the first step toward acknowledging and reducing that stress.
Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Mark Williams & Danny Penman, Rodale Books
Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan is a practical guide-book for mastering Mindfulness in two months. The book is packaged with audio recordings (you’ll need to download Mp3’s for free from the publisher’s website) to guide you through practicing the techniques. The first three chapters are theory-based, and provide an interesting insight into the way the mind works and the benefits of regularly practicing Mindfulness. The remaining chapters of the book walk you through the eight-week programme with exercises and activities.
Williams and Penman make heavy use of examples and stories to demonstrate the intention of the exercises and this is useful as it gives you an idea of what you should be driving at. They emphasise patience with yourself — the techniques take a while to get used to — but encourage persistence because the pay-off is great. Not only is this a practical guide but it also has a bit of substance, and context, which makes you realise that you’re essentially learning an entirely different thinking style and that this requires discipline and practice. There is enough here that you’ll take something away from it, even if you don’t end up completing the whole eight weeks.
For the briefest of moments, all of the thoughts, feelings and memories that flow incessantly across your mind will become apparent. Many of them will seem utterly random. It’s almost as if your mind is digging around in the back room, offering up possibilities to gauge if you — your conscious awareness — like them or find them useful or interesting in some way. It’s like a child holding up its toys to an approving adult. This is what your mind does — it offers up possibilities. You can then choose whether to accept these thoughts or not.
Mindfulness for Dummies, by Shamash Alidina, Wiley Publishing
Not surprisingly, Mindfulness for Dummies is an extremely accessible, practical resource. Also coming packaged with a CD, Mindfulness for Dummies guides you through the psychological underpinnings of the practice with visual tools like diagrams and graphs. In order to understand the principles you’ll need a basic understanding of the way the mind works (especially the subconscious) and how we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings.
The CD is helpful to guide you through the meditations, but the book itself is full of activities for you to experiment with while you learn. Once you’re fully up to date on the principles of mindfulness, and have a bit of practice under your belt, the book moves on to stress-reduction techniques which will help you understand the way stress works, what purpose it serves, and how to accept it so that you’re no longer at its mercy. The book also has a specific chapter designed for people dealing with anxiety disorders and depression, and provides guidance and insight on how mindfulness can help manage distress.
While not every resource will appeal to everyone, Mindfulness for Dummies is so full of good advice, easy-to-follow instructions and common sense that you’re bound to get something out of it even if you just flip through the pages.
When you’re faced with a difficulty in life, how do you meet it? How you relate to your difficulty plays a big role in the outcome. Your difficulties offer you a chance to put mindfulness into practice and see these difficulties in a different way. How do you meet problems? You can turn towards them or away from them. Mindfulness is about turning towards them with a sense of kindness rather than avoidance.
Difficulties are like ugly, scary shadows. If you don’t look at them properly they continue to frighten you and make you think they’re very real. However, if you look towards them, even though the difficulties scare you, you begin to understand what they are. The more light you shine on them the more they seem to lose their power. The light is mindfulness …
CDs and MP3s on Mindfulness
With Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson, a Scottish clinical hypnotherapist, has developed a range of MP3’s and CD’s which are designed to help you achieve a deep state of relaxation and calm. Each MP3 covers a specific topic and takes around 20 — 30 minutes. Students might like Exam Support or Beat Procrastination, but there are a great many variations on offer. Deep Sleep is a personal favourite on nights before big meetings.
Andrew has a gentle, calm voice and it’s not long before you’re breathing deeply and letting him talk you down into meditation. He’s so good it can be difficult to stay awake to the end of the recording, but if you find your mind wondering you can bring it back to his truly excellent Scottish accent. He also doesn’t seem to mind if your mind wanders because, he asserts, you’re still getting the benefit of a half hour of calm. For around $4 each that’s not a bad deal.
Mindfulness Skills Vol. 1, by Dr Russ Harris
Author of The Happiness Trap (above), Dr Harris has produced a series of CD’s and MP3’s to help guide you through the practical aspects of mindfulness training. Volume 1 is particularly useful as its tracks are targeted specifically for those experiencing stress or distress, and for those who are keen to develop their meditation techniques. Dr Harris has a soothing, gentle voice and encourages you to be forgiving and accepting of any roadblocks you encounter while you practice (your mind wandering off, for example, is normal at first!).
The recordings are useful if you’re feeling particularly stressed, as they will help you regain your focus. During Swot-vac and exams, for instance, taking a break for half an hour to listen to a track is a great way to re-energise. That will mean when you do get back to study you’ll feel refreshed, able to concentrate and able to get the most out of your time.
Mindfulness, from Counselling and Psychological Services — The University of Melbourne
Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) provide free MP3 downloads of several tracks to help you practice your mindfulness skills. The CAPS website has recordings of breathing exercises, excrises to help you manage your thoughts and feelings and autogenic training (15 minute exercises to be performed daily to help reduce and manage stress).
The CAPS website provides some information about how these techniques work and can be applied, but it may be best for you to read up on the topic as well using one of the books listed above. These downloads will then help you hone your skills and keep up your practice.
UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Centre — UCLA
Free guided meditations and podcasts.
The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Centre has been one of America’s premier facilities in furthering the study and understanding of mindfulness and wellbeing. The Centre has provided several free downloads of exercises and resources which will help you practice your mindfulness skills.
Often the key to finding effective mindfulness resources is finding a narrator whose voice doesn’t distract or annoy you. Given that, it’s a good idea to try a number of different downloads until you find one that you inherently gel with. The UCLA resources are narrated by Diana Winston, the director of the MARC, and she has a gentle, calming technique. The MARC also has a range of podcasts available which feature other narrators and leaders if you prefer a little variety.
Apps on Mindfulness
Headspace On the Go, from Headspace UK
Headspace is a UK organization who work to improve the general populations mental health and wellbeing. As part of this work, they have released Headspace On the Go, an App which provides mindfulness training through meditation.Headspace On the Go is a fabulous mix of information, meditation downloads and fun videos which explain the basic principles of mindfulness, why it’s important, and why it works. The app itself is accessible, user-friendly and interesting and the meditations themselves are easy to follow and fun.
The app provides free content for 10 days of meditation, to give you a taste for how it works. If you follow the program, you’ll meditate for 10 minutes for 10 days and start to develop the skills you need to effectively practice mindfulness. After that, if you want to continue on the program you’ll need to buy a subscription through the Headspace UK website (either paying monthly or for a year’s worth of access). Although the initial outlay may be a little more than you might normally pay for an App, the information and usefulness of the service can’t be overstated. This is genuinely one of the best mindfulness apps available. Available on iPhone and Android.
With Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson’s apps have become some of the most popular medical and health related downloads on iTunes over the past few years. Essentially, the Apps are the same recordings as his MP3’s available from his website, except that you are able to set how long you want to meditate for, if you want to wake up afterwards or fall asleep, or if you want to wake up but only after a period of time (for example, you can set it to wake you up after an hour of gentle napping).
The apps are the most versatile way to access the With Andrew Johnson recordings, and for roughly the same price as the MP3’s. Plus, if the recording finishes and you’ve fallen asleep the App will just turn itself off, and won’t interfere with any alarms that you’ve set for the morning. Available on iPhone and Android.
The Mindfulness App, from Mind Apps
The Mindfulness App is a useful tool once you have been introduced to the basics of mindfulness. If you’re comfortable that you understand the principles, and more or less know what to expect, The Mindfulness App will help you finesse your skills and remember to practice.
The Mindfulness App has several guided meditations, but you can also set a ‘silent meditation’, that is a meditation that doesn’t have someone talking you through it, which is timed with gentle bells to keep your mind on task, and you can set the meditation to go as long as you want it to. The app also lets you set prompts which pop up either at random intervals or at specific times, to remind you to keep focused and centered. You can customize your own message to yourself, or use one of the pre-programmed prompts like ‘What is happening around you right now?’ or ‘Bring your attention to your breath’. If you prefer peace and quiet while you meditate, and you feel like you know what you’re doing, you’ll find this app very helpful.
Mindfulness Meditation and Freedom from Stress, from Mental Workout Inc
Mindfulness Meditation and Freedom from Stress are two programs written by Stephan Bodian, a world-renowned psychotherapist and meditation trainer. The two programs are both accessed via the Mental Workout app, and once downloaded can be accessed for a yearly fee (at present, $17). Once you have paid, you can gain access to a dynamic and engaging program which will either guide you through Mindfulness training in general, or help you manage and reduce your stress levels.
The app has a number of nifty features, and the interface is slick and well-designed. Freedom from Stress has a range of guided meditations, a stress journal so you can track your stress levels and an ‘instant relief’ mode which will give you calming music and positive affirmations in a panicked situation. Mindfulness Meditation comes with an 8 week plan to help you master the principles of mindfulness, instructions and guided meditations to help you hone your skills. Both programs are well-rounded and engaging, and offer a holistic approach to wellness. This app in particular has longevity over some of the others, so the yearly subscription feels justified. Available on iPhone, iPad, and Android.
Mental Health Online, from Swinburne University and the Department of Health and Aging
In partnership with the Department of Health and Aging, Swinburne University has produced the truly nifty Mental Health Online, a series of online modules and tutorials around managing stress and anxiety. When you first log in, Mental Health Online asks you to complete a test which measures your levels of stress and anxiety and, if your anxiety levels are high, tries to figure out which kind of anxiety you may be suffering from (for example: Social, Generalised, Agoraphobia, Panic Disorder etc).
Once you get through to the online modules, you’ll find a wealth of information and practical tips on how to manage your stress and anxiety levels. The modules themselves are easy to follow, informative and engaging and you can come and go as you please. Mental Health Online also helps you track your anxiety and stress levels over time, so you can see just how good you’re getting. Best of all, it’s pitched at intelligent, informed tertiary students so it’s helpful without being condescending. A really great resource.
Mindful Awareness Practices, from UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Centre, UCLA
The Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC) at UCLA has developed two online courses on mindfulness which can be accessed from anywhere in the world, and in any time-zone. The material is pre-recorded and the course is paced out over six weeks. While it’s not cheap — the courses cost around $165 US — the material is world-class and you know that it has MARC’s considerable academic rigor and research behind it.
The courses run at set times of the year, so it’s important to keep up to date via MARC’s website to check when they will next run. The courses are designed for a beginner level and are a great way to develop your skills in mindfulness with close supervision from a trained moderator. The courses use online discussion boards and web-chats to help you discuss how you’re going with the teaching staff and other students, so you can get clear direction on how you’re going. This is possibly why there is a cost associated with the course, but it is also a unique opportunity to be tutored by the leaders of the discipline.
The Mood Gym, from Australian National University
The Mood Gym is an initiative developed by ANU and is designed to help young people better understand anxiety, depression and stress. The Mood Gym isn’t necessarily a mindfulness resource, but it does provide insight and information into how our thought patterns inform our behavior (and vice versa).
The Mood Gym challenges you to think about how you think — as strange as that sounds — and encourages you to identify any unhelpful or unusual thought patterns which are making life difficult. Essentially the Mood Gym has groundings in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and it’s an easily accessible way to be introduced to some of these important psychological theories. That said, it’s not just for people with diagnosed mental illnesses, and it’s not solely pitched at this audience — anyone can get benefit from CBT and examining why they think the way they do. If you’re seeking clarity about what really goes on in your head when you’re stressed, this is a good place to start.