Having been interested in the concept of mindfulness for some time, Richard Shrubb tries it out online, using an app.

In this hyper-connected world of internet and mobile phones, we all live in the fast lane. I can only imagine what it is like to be in early stage psychosis these days with millions more stimuli than in the relatively simple world of the late 90s when I was diagnosed. Now, there is increasing talk of service users and staff members alike all needing to learn to dial back. 

Meditation has been suggested to me for decades, and now it has been researched and medicalised into mindfulness. We won’t deal with the science here – just leaving it that, as far as can reasonably be said, the meditation technique is proven to help with a range of mental health issues from anxiety to depression and even addiction. 

After a ridiculously traumatic year last year I asked for help from my community mental health trust in sourcing a mindfulness course for anxiety and addiction to nicotine but they couldn’t find a free or NHS version for addiction. I was later idly surfing Facebook when I saw an advert for the Headspace Mindfulness app, which offered 10 free sessions that should be completed in 10 days. I ended up doing 15 in 25 days, but forced myself to find 10 minutes every day in a row ahead of writing this piece. 

With your smartphone or tablet close by you sit in a quiet spot at your chosen time of day and are guided by the narrator of the session through about 12 minutes of guidance on mindfulness (2 minutes) and the session itself (10 minutes). I sit in my garden every morning under cover from the rain, listening to birdsong and the world outside as I do so. 

Headspace offers a Get Some/Give Some scheme where, for every subscription they sell they offer a free one to charity and non-profit organisations. On the landing page for the scheme, I noted that City and Hackney Mind have signed up to this, and would presume that they give free Headspace courses to their members and users. Other organisations should approach them to see whether it is possible to sign up. Could an NHS Trust sign up? I would love it if they did!

So, what did I find? The only mindfulness sessions I have done to date been a half hour to an hour long. They left me utterly flaked out. Is 10 minutes a long enough session? I’m starting to think so.

I do my Headspace session between breakfast and work in the morning when I’m charged up with coffee. This might not sound like a good idea but mindfulness is supposed to help with focus and mental organisation – in my unpredictable life as a freelance this should be a good thing. 

The cat thinks I am at my desk solely to play with her, and before the Headspace sessions I was guaranteed to swear at her as she cavorted all over my keyboard and cleared my desk of the phone, computer and paperwork. Now I swear at her about 40% of the time, having reminded myself that it is her only time with me (the crotchety old Tom of ours owns the living room so she gets no TV time in the evening…)

As with any task, you need to discipline yourself. The reason I went back to the first session and did 10 in 10 days was because I saw that the haphazard 5 in 15 days wasn’t really hitting the mark. However, I do see this as a long-term commitment – after the 10 introductory sessions you start a subscription of either £7.50 a month or £60 in a one-off payment for a year. This opens the door to a range of courses that deal with all sorts of situations from anxiety attacks to depression and stress (in their mental health course), to managing relationships and even performance at work. 

They say that the ‘placebo effect’ occurs when at some level the recipient of the placebo really wants it to work. I may well be a victim of this – I know it does work and have a deep belief in mindfulness from all the good stuff I have read about it over the years. I want Headspace to help, so I recognise that some of what I see may well be placebo. 

I recently read a rant in The Guardian, published in 2014, that railed against mindfulness. It said somewhat sarcastically, “the answer touted everywhere right now is mindfulness. Just let go for few minutes a day, breathe, observe your thoughts as ripples across a pond, feel every sensation around you. Stop your mind whirring and, lo, miraculously, everything will improve "at a cellular level".” I was struggling with the course at the time, so was open to criticism. After reading it I had a nightmare that night that may have led to me emailing someone from my past – which I do about once a year and generally regret as they were an extremely negative influence in my world. But I did the session and the importance of writing that email evaporated. That told me that at some level at least, something is starting to change. 

Is this a recommendation? A cautious yes. The user needs discipline to do it daily, and if an organisation cannot sign up to Get Some/Give Some, the finances to pay for the annual or monthly fee may be an obstruction. If both can be arranged? It is definitely worth a shot. 

About the author

Richard Shrubb is a freelance journalist and media consultant