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You’re being pulled in a thousand different directions, with work, home, family, friends, and other parts of your life keeping you extremely busy. If you’re looking for a natural way to help you reduce stress and improve your overall wellness, mindfulness may be the answer.
What is mindfulness?
You’ve probably heard the term mindfulness, or at least seen it mentioned on the covers of popular magazines while checking out at the grocery store. While it’s certainly gained popularity in recent years, you might associate this practice with monks sitting on a mountaintop.
And you wouldn’t be totally wrong. Mindfulness does come from Buddhist spiritual meditation practices—but just because it started there, that doesn’t mean it requires any religious connection. Mindfulness is now widely acknowledged as a stress management tool based on the work by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Shapiro, 2006).
In simple terms, mindfulness is where you pay attention and bring awareness to what’s happening in the present moment. That can include paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the environment without judging what you observe—that is, without labeling it as good or bad. The nonjudgmental component is essential because it means you’re in the present moment, rather than regretting the past, feeling worried about the future, or wishing that your present moment was somehow different.
Mindfulness: what it is, types, benefits
As you explore mindfulness practice, you’re likely to come across some key acronyms—namely, MBSR and MBCT.
MBSR stands for mindfulness-based stress reduction, a comprehensive technique developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He created an 8-week course that involves daily mindfulness activities to increase self-awareness (Kabat-Zinn, nd).
MBCT is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. This approach combines cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of talk therapy, with certain aspects of mindfulness-based stress reduction. MBCT is usually used to treat people with depressive symptoms (MacKenzie, 2016).
In the clinical world, mindfulness is known for helping with depression and other mental health conditions. However, many studies have examined other beneficial health effects of mindfulness on overall wellness.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
More than 200 studies have examined the effect mindfulness can have on depression, chronic pain, anxiety disorders, addiction, and many other conditions in people of any age and from all walks of life.
Here are the top 12 benefits of mindfulness:
1. Helps reduce your levels of stress
There has been significant research into mindfulness’s effects on stress. There are many kinds of stress: personal, work-related, financial, environmental. While the stressors may be different, the impact of stress on the body typically does not change.
Effects of stress include (APA, 2018):
- Feeling irritable or agitated
- Trouble sleeping or insomnia
- Fatigued or low energy
- Tension headache
- Stress rash
- Difficulty concentrating
- Tight, clenched jaw and teeth grinding at night
- Heart problems
Mindfulness practice helps people respond significantly better to the stresses of day-to-day life (Donald, 2016).
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Some people experience more psychological symptoms from intense stress than physical symptoms. These can include worrying excessively, arguing or being defensive with family and friends, or feeling tense. Mindfulness may help improve emotional regulation during stressful periods, which can help you handle your stress better and improve your mood (Remmers, 2016).
2. Decreases depressive symptoms and negative emotions
Mindfulness helps with depression because it helps regulate emotions. Many people have negative emotions when they are depressed. With mindfulness, you identify, process, and accept these negative feelings instead of avoiding or fighting them. Acknowledging and accepting your feelings can lead to better coping skills, which may help better manage your depression.
Mindfulness may even help people with severe depression. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has been shown to help chronically depressed people with suicidal ideation by reducing self-harm thoughts more effectively than just psychotherapy alone (Forkmann, 2016). And mindfulness doesn’t just treat immediate symptoms of depression. The effects may be long-lasting. MBCT may significantly decrease the recurrence of depression in people with previous depressive episodes (Godfrin, 2010).
Mindfulness can also help lower healthcare costs for people receiving treatment for depression, helping your wallet and your mind—a win-win (Shawyer, 2016).
3. May boost your immune system
A systematic review of mindfulness and the immune system found practicing mindfulness may help strengthen your immune system and improve its ability to fight off illnesses (Black, 2016).
4. Can improve brain function
Mindfulness may even help reshape the brain to function better.
In 2005, a study found that mindfulness meditation led to increased thickness in the brain cortex, the part of the brain used for sensory processing and general cognitive functions (like paying attention) (Lazar, 2005).
Since then, there have been several studies on how mindfulness affects the brain. One study found that long-term meditation led to thicker and denser gray matter in the brain stem. This area of the brain controls the heart and lungs (among other systems). This impact may be related to how mindfulness can help with heart-related issues like heart rate and blood pressure (Vestergaard-Poulsen, 2009).
Practicing mindfulness helps your brain function at a higher level. Studies on the brain using functional MRI (fMRI) found significant positive brain changes after an 8-week mindfulness course. The amygdala (the part of the brain that handles strong emotions and stress) was less active after a mindfulness course. In contrast, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus (the areas of the brain that do higher-level functioning) showed increased connectivity and activity (Tang, 2019).
5. Improves physical health
You might think mindfulness only affects the mind, but it can improve your physical health, too. People who engage in mindfulness meditation practices tend to increase health-promoting behaviors, getting regular checkups, exercising, and decreasing or avoiding nicotine and alcohol (Sala, 2020).
Mindfulness has been shown to help improve cardiovascular health. In addition to its effect on lowering blood pressure and stress in the moment, it’s been proposed that the increased focus mindfulness gives you can help you stick with healthy habits, remember to take medication, and stay focused on other activities that can support your overall wellness (Loucks, 2015).
Mindfulness exercises: benefits and where to start
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is currently investigating mindfulness and meditation to see if this intervention can (NCCIH, 2016):
- Lower high blood pressure
- Reduce stress in people with multiple sclerosis
- Improve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Help people who suffer from chronic headaches
- Improve symptoms in teens with chronic and widespread pain
6. Makes chronic or terminal illness more manageable
Several studies examined how mindfulness can help people with chronic or terminal illnesses like cancer. While mindfulness is not a cure, it can help make symptoms or treatments more tolerable and manageable.
A mindfulness-based course designed for people with cancer found that mindfulness activities and practice increased participants’ energy levels, decreased stress, and improved feelings of relaxation (Zernicke, 2016).
Mindfulness doesn’t just help the person dealing with the medical condition. Caregivers may also benefit. A systematic review found that mindfulness helps caregivers or family members of a person with a chronic or terminal disease by lowering the caregiver’s depression and anxiety (Li, 2016).
Beyond cancer, mindfulness may improve stress-related symptoms of certain other diseases, as well. Research on mindfulness has studied its effects on psoriasis, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and other chronic conditions with promising results (Creswell, 2019).
7. Helps you sleep better
While mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can help with insomnia, an adaptation of MBSR called mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia (MBTI) has been shown to reduce insomnia severity even more than MBSR (Ong, 2014).
8. Improves your ability to focus
Mindfulness improves your attention skills. When you can focus better, you decrease mindless mistakes, improve your performance and effectiveness, and jump-start your creativity. Mindfulness has been shown to help improve attention even for adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Poissant, 2019).
Mindfulness also helps enhance your memory, including in people with memory-loss disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia (Russell-Williams, 2018).
9. Eases chronic pain
In one study, people with chronic back pain found they had more significant improvement in their functional ability and needed less treatment to manage their pain when incorporating MBSR. Their results remained when researchers checked in with them at 26 weeks and again up to a year later (Cherkin, 2016).
10. Helps with smoking cessation
If you’re trying to stop smoking, mindfulness may help. A meta-analysis of 13 studies found that mindfulness-based interventions significantly reduced craving, helped people quit smoking, and prevented relapses (de Souza, 2015).
11. Makes your romantic relationships better
Practicing mindfulness may be good for your romantic relationships. In one study, couples who did mindfulness activities or training felt their partners “heard” them and were more responsive to their needs. They reported feeling closer to each other, more accepting of their partners, and more optimistic about their relationship (Adair, 2018).
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12. May help with weight loss
Mindfulness and eating mindfully may help you lose weight. A systematic review found that people across 18 studies on mindfulness interventions for weight loss lost an average of seven pounds (Carrière, 2018)
Mindfulness is also correlated with healthier body weight and perhaps keeping the weight off. A study found that mindfulness meditation may help improve your eating habits and attitude toward food while lessening anxiety and depression related to weight (Rogers, 2017).
How to practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is about noticing and focusing. You can focus on your thoughts, how your body feels, how you’re breathing, what senses are activating, how you feel emotionally at the moment, or if you have any urges or cravings. When you pay close attention to any of these “signals” when you feel them and without judging them—merely noticing them and letting them pass—that is practicing mindfulness.
There are a few ways to do mindfulness meditation, all with the shared intention of achieving focused awareness and staying in the present moment. Mindfulness meditation is an organized way of focusing your attention. You can do it on your own, with guided instruction, a podcast, or a group.
How to start
Sit quietly and breathe naturally. Focus your attention on your breath, feeling the air enter and leave your body, and noticing your chest and belly rise and fall with your breath. Some people like to say a mantra, which is one word you repeat over and over again, like love, peace, or joy. As you practice, your brain will keep sending you thoughts, and you can just let them come and go without judging them and keep returning to your mantra or breathing.
Mindfulness helps you build your ability to focus and concentrate. It may not feel like it’s doing anything when you first start but keep at it. If your mind starts wandering, gently bring it back to your point of focus. Planning, criticisms, negative self-talk, or daydreams may all arise when you meditate, but let them come and pass without being hard on yourself.
Another way to practice mindfulness is to focus wholeheartedly on a single task. Do something you might typically do, like eating a peach, petting your dog or cat, brushing your teeth, watering the plants, or even washing your hands—but you’ll do these mundane actions with mindfulness. Direct your attention to the feelings and the senses you’re experiencing when doing the task. Slow the process down, give it your full attention, and be present as you incorporate all of the sensations of the task.
Other types of mindful meditation practices
If you need a more structured practice, you can try one of the following:
- Sitting meditation: This is where you sit comfortably while focusing on your breath, a single thought, or a mantra.
- Walking meditation: This is where you walk slowly, focusing on the experience and paying attention to the sensations of walking.
- Body scan meditation: This is where you focus your attention on each body part, starting from your feet to the top of your head, noticing any sensations you have in every part of your body, one at a time.
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Taking your mindfulness practice further
When you’re ready to go further with your practice, you can consider taking a course or finding a therapist trained in MBSR or MBCT. These mindfulness interventions have been researched and have good evidence of their benefits. You may want to listen to a podcast or find an online course if an in-person class isn’t right for you at the moment.
If you have a medical condition that has been challenging for you, speak to your healthcare provider about a medically oriented meditation program. Some insurance companies may cover the cost of these programs.
The last word on mindfulness
Mindfulness helps create the mental capacity to deal with adverse events. By focusing on the present, you may find that you worry less, have fewer regrets over what happened in the past, and are better able to handle the present. Mindfulness has many other benefits for your overall well-being. It’s never a bad time to begin a mindfulness practice. While it may take some time for you to get into the habit of doing daily mindfulness activities, practice whenever you can to reap the many benefits of mindfulness and improve your quality of life.
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Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.