The term ‘mindfulness’ is cropping up everywhere – in schools, businesses, in supporting individuals with mental illness, and in preparing mums for childbirth and parenting. So what does it mean?
John Kabat Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), defines it as paying attention to the present moment, to things as they are, non-judgmentally. This means focusing the mind on the moment, letting go of what’s been and what’s to come. It involves stepping back into your body and becoming aware of your thoughts, sensations and emotions. We attempt to do this all without judgment, as despite judgment being useful when navigating our world, self-judgment lowers our mood comparing us and our situation to an ideal, outlining how we ‘should’ be.
Mindfulness and women’s health
Mindfulness programmes attempt to develop mindfulness, using meditation, mindful movement and breathing practices. Through practice (and more practice) of gently bringing the mind back to the present, noticing our experience, including judgments, sensations, thoughts etc. and learning about how we engage with our experience, we become more able to direct and control where our mind wanders to.
With this, people say they feel more able to concentrate and focus which in turn, improves memory. It also helps people gain awareness of changes in mood, spikes in emotion, negative thoughts and pain, which enables us to act to healthily manage what we feel, as with knowledge comes power. This is alongside a greater acceptance of thoughts, feelings and self, leading to increased self-esteem.
Mindfulness in childbirth has been found to support women and their partners both physically and emotionally, providing helpful strategies to manage any fear, pain and anxiety around childbirth itself, increasing positive affect as well as boosting the all-important hormones vital for birthing. Dr Emma Rowley, a psychologist specialising in mindful childbirth and parenting says: "the wonderful thing about mindfulness is you can take it with you, wherever you are, whatever situation you find yourself in...simply by connecting with your breath you can become aware of, and even enjoy, how things really are in that moment, without layering on all the fears, worries and expectations that can weigh us down and negatively affect how we experience the present. This is particularly valuable during childbirth, and when navigating the challenging transition to parenthood."
And this is backed up by evidence as mindfulness has been proven to support women, particularly through pregnancy and the postnatal period. A recent randomised controlled trial found that training pregnant women in a mindful program which addresses fear and pain during childbirth, had a number of benefits including improving childbirth experiences, lowering opioid use in childbirth and lessening pre- and postnatal depressive symptoms.
And this makes sense as we know, what’s going on for us, including our emotions, stresses, pain etc., can affect our ability to birth, parent and be with others. For example, most mums will have noticed that on particularly stressful days, they find it harder to parent in a sensitive and responsive way. As Dr Jo Gee, a psychotherapist delivering mindfulness individual and group sessions says: "mindfulness isn’t about judging our ability to parent, but equipping us with tools to help us step back and remain calm, as if we can ground ourselves in the present moment using our breath and other techniques, we may be more able to think clearly, notice our strong emotions, and tap into some of that all important compassion!"
So how can we be more mindful?
Informal mindfulness – A useful way to help develop your ability to be mindful, is through doing everyday activities mindfully. Set yourself a daily task, such as an activity in your morning routine, and commit to doing it mindfully. Observe what you are doing within the activity (e.g.: cleaning teeth) and try and notice with all your senses what you are doing, gently noticing when your mind wonders or makes judgements, and simply coming back to the activity on noticing it has wandered. In reality, you will notice your mind wander many times (even in a short three minute practice) but it is the practice that counts. Do this every day and you will begin to notice a change in your ability to draw your mind back when it goes elsewhere.
Formal mindfulness – Apps like ‘Headspace’ have formal, directed meditations for you to follow. This often feels more manageable at first as you are reminded to gently draw your mind back when it wonders, to notice judgments and to be in the present. These apps have handy reminders to remind you to do your practice too! There are also lots of local classes, both for general mindfulness and for Mindfulness based Childbirth and parenting, if you are thinking about using mindfulness specifically for childbirth.