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Secret to coping with stress that's worth bearing in mind

It may be the new buzzword for coping with pressure, but two people from Northern Ireland tell Stephanie Bell that learning how to practise mindfulness really does have significant benefits.

We've all done it - eaten a meal and not tasted a single bite, or driven miles and not remembered any of the landmarks along the way.

With minds that are forever wandering - whether it's replaying issues in our past or fretting about something that might happen in the future - we all struggle to simply live in, and enjoy the moment.

Mindfulness - the practice of focusing the mind on what is happening right now - has become the new force in helping people to combat stress and mental illness.

Depression is rarely out of the headlines. After the death last year of Hollywood star Robin Williams there has been an outpouring of stories on mental health in the media.

Coronation Street fans have also taken to Twitter in their thousands since the soap featured its first ever storyline on depression with actor Simon Gregson - who usually plays the joking and upbeat Steve McDonald - hailed as a hero for his lifelike portrayal of the illness.

Depression affects about one in 12 people in the population, and one in four will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives.

Whether you are coping with a mental illness or just lead a busy life and could do with some support to get through the ups and downs, local charity Aware Defeat Depression is making Mindfulness available to everyone with a new six-week series of courses starting in early May in Belfast, Londonderry and Ballymena.

The courses aim to help participants decrease anxiety, worry and stress by instead focusing each person on their energy and enthusiasm to help improve both their personal and professional lives.

And as Aware's chief executive, Siobhan Doherty reveals the courses have been attracting a wide variety of people, and not necessarily those coping with depressive illness.

"Our mindfulness courses provide people with the tools that will enable and empower them to discover their full potential by tapping into their reservoir of resilience," she said.

"We often welcome young mums who are struggling to adjust to the change a baby brings to their lives, retired people who are looking for a new focus, busy business people in need of some personal time and, of course, those who are suffering from depression or low self esteem.

"Mental health is often stigmatised and we want our mindfulness courses to break down these barriers and offer a safe environment to work through a participant's issues."

Aware has employed its own mindfulness practitioner, Frank Liddy from Belfast, to deliver the courses.

Frank has more than 25 years experience in the mental health sector and has been at the forefront of developing creative mindfulness-based initiatives to communities across Northern Ireland.

"Each group session is tailored to explore the direct experiences of the participants and the obstacles that arise in everyday life," he says.

"There is a weekly theme that unfolds through guided mindfulness practices that brings benefits to participants.

"After the six weeks, when participants have committed fully to the course, we know they will discover a new way of being, gain confidence and awareness, as well as developing the tools and skills necessary to deal with life's challenges."

We talked to two local people who have had very different reasons for attending the mindfulness courses and find out how it made a difference to the quality of their lives.

'It lifts my spirits and puts me in good form'

Glenn Hinds (48), a training assistant and life coach from Londonderry, is married to Lisa (51), a social worker. They've three children, Maeve (19), Rory (18) and Bronagh (14). He says:

I did the 10-week course about four months ago. Given my job as a professional helper, which involves supporting other people in making changes in their lives, I recognised the importance of my own well-being, which is why I did the course.

I have done meditation in the past and when the opportunity came along to do the mindfulness course with Aware, for me it was a case of self-care and learning ways to improve and maintain my psychological, spiritual and emotional well-being.

A lot of people I work with have experienced a lot of pain and that can impact on me, so I felt I needed to maintain my health in order to help others.

The course really showed the importance of the relationship between body and mind, and the significance of being present in the moment.

It was good for me to have the opportunity to be the student rather than the teacher. It helped me to develop and maintain a balance between me looking after other people, and me being looked after.

It was also an opportunity to get new ways to support myself on an ongoing basis as well as learn how to use the senses as a way of understanding what is happening.

It taught me that the more I understand what is happening in my life, then rather than just reacting to things, I am able to respond in a peaceful and purposeful way.

As a dad of three children, I often wonder "How do I lead them into adulthood so that they are able to take care of themselves?". The course made me realise that the best way to do that is to lead by example and show them how I do it.

Frank showed me how to think about things from different angles and explore the potential and learning that situations can offer.

Ours was a really diverse group of people who all got profound insights into themselves.

There was one woman who had a fear of swimming for years and she was able to discover, for the first time, where that came from. Two weeks later she was in the swimming pool.

It helps you to become aware of why you are behaving the way you are, and to notice things - then endeavour to notice them without judgement.

One of the many ways it has helped me is in my work. If I'm with someone who is anxious and I am experiencing their anxiety, I now know I am not anxious but empathising with them.

It has helped me to be more patient with life and to appreciate things more. I've always been an optimist, but now I really do appreciate things around me.

Right now, I am standing in Sandy Row in Belfast and I see the trees and the light in the sky. There are people around just getting on with their lives and a woman sitting with her dog on a bench.

Mindfulness has taught me to see the beauty around me and I feel peace. It would be easy to stand here and see what is missing and what needs to be done, but that would only make me feel annoyed. When I respond to something in a meaningful way, it lifts my spirits and puts me in better form. As a consequence - as a husband and dad - my family benefit from seeing me in good form.

I know mindfulness is 'sexy' at the moment, but I think it is fantastic, especially given the world we live in today where people are very isolated. It helps you to appreciate the important things in life, not what we have or don't have, but the people around us. I really believe mindfulness is a gift you can give yourself."

'Life's so fast  ... getting the time to stop really helped'

Ciara Moore, from Londonderry, is a counsellor who has battled depression on and off throughout her adult life. Ciara (40) is married to Columba (44), who works in property management, and they have one daughter Abbie, (7). She says:

As a counsellor I was aware of mindfulness and had read about it, and had some interest in it. I wanted to do the course to find out what it is like in practice. I also wanted to see if it is something I could bring to my clients.

I am a qualified social worker, but I wanted to do something more therapeutic and which would allow me to work more with people - which is why I trained as a counsellor.

I have experienced depression on and off throughout my own life.

For me, personal therapy and training to be a counsellor helped with my illness.

It was in my early to late 20s that I suffered from depression, and it's tough because you really don't know what is happening - you're not sure you even have an illness. I tended to think I was just a complainer or didn't know how to be happy.

When I realised I had it I did take medication for it at first. Working as a social worker, I also saw other ways of addressing it.

It is the daily impact on your mood that is hard. You feel anxious, down, agitated or angry - and these emotions can come quite frequently throughout the day. You don't understand why you feel like that or what to do about it.

It is a vicious circle because you need to exercise and eat better, but you don't have the motivation to do that.

I can really see how the mindfulness course would benefit, not just people with depression, but anyone.

It was excellent. Frank was amazing, he is very down to earth and he made everyone in the group feel very relaxed. We all became very cohesive as a group and were disappointed when the course was over.

It gave me a real insight into how to get in touch with the moment, and how to make that mind and body connection.

The course gave me the tools to practice that. Just to take a few minutes, half-an-hour or whatever time you can every day to sit still and connect with what is going on inside your body and mind. It centres you and is a very peaceful experience.

They say depression is living in the past and anxiety is living in the future - mindfulness teaches you to just focus on what is happening right here and now, in the moment. This allows you to realise that nothing bad is happening and that you are safe.

Life is so fast and furious, and we stress ourselves over things we have no control over - about what has happened or hasn't happened in our lives. Just to have that chance to stop and be in the moment ... you realise that right now everything is fine - this can make all the difference to your perspective and outlook on things. I think it is something anybody could benefit from as it helps make life easier and better. It gives you a bit of clarity."

So you want to try a mindfulness course?

  • Aware Defeat Depression has been working since 1996 to support all those in affected by depression
  • It opened its first office in Londonderry and now has a second office in Duncairn Gardens, Belfast where its helpline is based
  • The charity also has an established network of more than 20 support groups provincewide, in both rural and urban areas, manned by its team of trained volunteers
  • Aware believes the people who use its services should have a say in how they are developed and delivered, so it employs people with experience of depression at every level in the organisation, including the Board of Directors
  • Mindfulness courses are being held in the Ramada Plaza, Shaw's Bridge every Wednesday from May 20, The Playhouse in Derry every Friday from May 1 and in Ballymena's Galgorm Manor every Tuesday from May 19
  • To attend you can register your interest at

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