What Is Mindfulness?
We read about mindfulness everywhere; it’s a buzzword. To become mindful means to be aware of the present moment, focus on acceptance and non-judgment, and let go of the story and distractions in the mind. Mindfulness practices can occur during any activity and interaction. Quality health and wellness coaching cannot happen without mindfulness skills. Mindfulness sets the foundation for your actions as a coach and all relationships with patients.
The mindfulness field has grown rapidly. Eleven studies occurred from 1995 through 1997 - however, 216 studies developed from 2013 to 2015. Evidence continues to increase. (Powell, April 9, 2018) Since 1982, over 25,000 people at the UMass Medical Center have participated in John Kabat Zinn’s mindfulness stress-based reduction program (MBSR). This program has become the general reference point for most mindfulness-based interventions.
What Are The Benefits of Mindfulness Practice?
Mindfulness and health and wellness coaching go hand in hand. Harvard University studies reveal that mindfulness practices have:
Increased self-confidence and leadership skills,
Improved mood and cognitive skills
Reduced oxidative cellular stress,
Regulated sleep patterns,
What health and wellness coach wouldn’t benefit from that?
What Is The Science of Mindfulness?
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change itself, in effect, to self-optimize its pathways. This concept is crucial. MRI, SPECT scan, and EEG studies have confirmed that mindfulness practices change brain structure and function. (Burdick, 2013, pp.44-6, Schaffer, 2017) Self-esteem, concentration, sleep, addictions, memory, and self-regulation are among the many benefits mindfulness practitioners report. Studies on neuroplasticity have dovetailed nicely with studies on mindfulness, strengthening the case for program development in schools and hospitals, and corporate environments. Neuroplasticity,’ the physiological basis of mindful awareness from a scientific standpoint, proves how much mindfulness can improve general neurological function.
Let’s take a concrete look at neuroplasticity using our minds. The mind often sounds like a TV show with different distracting characters. Sometimes the characters are real people, other times, the characters come from voices we create.
Which channel do you tune into most frequently? Stop and think. Is it the “I am not good enough” channel or the “Taking things too seriously” channel? Are we on the “Anxiety bandwidth,” or do we feel comfortable listening to the “Obsess about my enemies” network? (Burdick, 2013)
For fun, try this reframing exercise to change the bandwidth of your mind.
Create a positive awareness channel. Visualize calming scenes, walking on the beach, a park bench, or a river. Some people like to visualize walking on the ocean. Others might think of a song lyric, a mantra, or an inspirational quote.
When a repetitive negative thought arises, picture pressing a button to change the channel to a positive image.
By changing the channel, we change the neural pathways our system created. We can go deeper than thought repetition and become aware of the root of a problem. Solving the root cause of emotions is easier during mindful moments of self-observation, awareness, and acceptance. Remember that we are redirecting negative thoughts rather than stuffing them down. The distinction is important. We are aware of our thoughts and do not judge them. It is different than ignoring one’s emotions - we shift the destructive cycle and create a positive one. Ultimately, we can deepen our relationships with others by deepening our relationship with ourselves. Our connections become grounded in the present and more authentic.
What Is The Difference Between Formal and Informal Mindfulness Practice?
Formal practice: A formal practice is traditionally called a “meditation.” It entails setting aside time to do nothing but sit, be, or meditate. Formal practice may take a few minutes or a couple of hours. Formal practice is generally done sitting comfortably with the spine straight in a chair or on the floor. Formal practices guide individuals to one-pointed focus using particular tools to minimize distractions in the mind, like a repetitive mantra, breathing practice, prayer, chant, or visualization.
Informal practice: This is how we apply mindfulness or compassion to our everyday lives. With an informal practice, we focus intensely on the sensations that arise in each situation that we find ourselves in. When eating, we focus on sight, smell, taste, touch, and maybe even sound to anchor us in the present moment. We might also become aware of emotions or thoughts arising at the moment. When walking, we walk, mindful of the feel of the ground, the path ahead, the surroundings when crossing the street, the people we see, and the places we pass.
The basic instructions are the same for formal and informal practices:
Be aware of the present moment and accept it with nonjudgment.
When you notice your attention has wandered, gently redirect it to the new moment.
Be aware of the breath and the body. Return to the steady rhythm of the breath when you find your thoughts have gone elsewhere.
Both informal and formal practice is engaged and involves choice. Usually, we all operate on some sort of autopilot during all actions like eating, driving, cleaning, or even conversing. We may assume that we are engaged. However, a closer look reveals that we are lost in thoughts, and the mind is busy either rehashing the past or rehearsing the future. In this way, our life passes us by, even though it unfolds moment by moment.
Using Mindfulness to Deepen Relationships
In their book “Missing Each Other” (New York, 2021 ), Emanuel Brodkin and Ashley Pallathra explore ways that workplace dynamics can shift so that we feel more connected to our coworkers. They developed a mindfulness process called “attunement.” Their research stemmed from studies on interactions between individuals with autism, but the same parameters in those studies can apply to all relationship dynamics.
Health and wellness coaches are ideally placed to remain self-aware while focusing on connecting with patients. Mindfulness naturally dovetails with the coaching process. Mindfulness is not something that one gains mastery over immediately. When we are mindful of another person, we are aware of both our feelings and the feelings of another in various situations. Naturally, the most unexpected situations can be triggering. Yet, during triggering moments, mindfulness becomes critical.
As coaches, we can use our mindfulness skills to maintain a coaching presence, which is how we serve our patients. We are fully present for them through our ability to be mindful. Through the skill of mindfulness, we can increase our ability to build trust and rapport with our patients because they will feel more heard and understood. Ultimately, this will lead to better outcomes in any coaching session.
Mindfulness comes in many forms and can look very different depending on the situation. Below are some examples of how to use mindfulness in a coaching session:
To prepare for a coaching session, you may notice your breath and try to slow it or deepen it, feeling your midsection expand and contract. Pay attention to the position of your shoulders. Are they creeping up toward your ears? Let them drop. Notice your surroundings and place your feet on the ground. Bring yourself back to the present moment. Awareness of the present moment is the key to engaging with others more effectively. We leave the world of digital distractions, and our usual whirling thought processes behind as we give the patient our undivided attention. You can practice this step in-between coaching sessions wherever you are.
During coaching, listen to your patient’s body language and be more mindful of them. Are they tense? Is their tone of voice anxious or frustrated? Take a moment to become aware of how you are feeling as well. What range of emotions do you sense? Note these emotions with nonjudgment and bring yourself back to full coaching presence in the movement. It is difficult to hear what your patient is saying when you cannot recognize your thoughts and emotions, set them aside without judgment, and bring yourself back to being fully present for your patient. Try to remain in the moment instead of being caught up in the future or thinking about the past.
In a coaching session, you can practice mindfulness by intently focusing on empathizing with your patient. Try to understand how they feel and why they might have a particular viewpoint. Empathy is one of the most important ways we can connect with our patients.
Lastly, a form of mindfulness can be the practice of curiosity. Showing genuine interest in your patient, their lived experience, and decision-making creates a safe space for them to share deeper thoughts and feelings. Patients that expand their level of self-awareness learn to access greater possibilities in the moment.
Health and wellness coaches can apply mindfulness practices in a variety of ways and through informal and formal practices. It is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves and our patients. Mindfulness is indispensable for inclusive health coaches to maintain their coaching presence to serve their patients better.
Brodkin, Edward S., and Ashley Pallatra, “Getting Back to the Basics of Human Connection,” Harvard Business Review, October 29, 2021.
Burdick, Deborah, LCSW R, BCN, "Mindfulness Workbook for Clinicians and Patients: 111 Tools, Techniques, Activities and Worksheets", Wisconsin: PESI Publishing and Media, 2013.
Powell, Alvin, “When Science Meets Mindfulness,” The Harvard Gazette, April 9, 2018, seen on: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/harvard-researchers-study-how-mindfulness-may-change-the-brain-in-depressed-patients/ March 1, 2023.
Schaefer N, et al., "The malleable brain: plasticity of neural circuits and behavior - a review from students to students," J Neurochem. 2017 Sep;142(6):790-811. DOI: 10.1111/jnc.14107. Epub 2017 August 8. PMID: 28632905.