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Jul 20, 2021
7 min read

Mindfulness: what it is, types, benefits

Mindfulness is all about being fully present in the moment to improve wellbeing. It’s both a practice and a lifestyle to make you more relaxed, aware, and accepting of the pleasures and challenges in daily life, without judgment. Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation involves exercises to practice being in the present moment to help with stress reduction and other health benefits.

felix gussonerob roy britt

Reviewed by Felix Gussone, MD

Written by Robert Roy Britt

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

The term “mindfulness” is often confused with “mindfulness meditation.” The latter is more geared toward specific meditation practice sessions involving exercises or techniques aiming to cultivate the broader state of mindfulness. 

While there isn’t much research on the benefits of mindfulness as a lifestyle, mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction are well-studied and shown to reduce stress. They can potentially even help with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. 

While professional guidance is helpful, mindfulness meditation doesn’t require any special equipment or settings. Anyone can try it using the simple examples included here.

What is mindfulness?

The most succinct definition of mindfulness is an “awareness of one’s internal states and surroundings” (American Psychological Association, n.d.). Put another way, it’s “being aware of the present moment” (Behan, 2020). It is the practice of focusing your attention on your thoughts and feelings and the physical sensations around you—being in the moment, but doing it, importantly, without judgment.

Though the terms are often used interchangeably, mindfulness meditation is a more formal practice, done in specific sessions on a regular basis—daily, for example. The goal is achieving greater general mindfulness. The meditation techniques can vary and often include breathing exercises and a focus on self-compassion or loving-kindness (Behan, 2020). 

The practice of mindfulness meditation has its roots in Buddhism and the Buddhist psychology of analyzing and understanding the nature of self and improving self-esteem. Buddhism teaches one to accept things and let them be or let them go (Xiao, 2017). The meditation involves two main aspects (American Psychological Association, 2019): 

  • Attention: To focus attention, you tune into what’s going on in the moment: your breathing, your thoughts, as well as sounds and other external sensations.
  • Acceptance: Rather than tuning these things out, you aim to accept them, to take in the observations and feelings without judgment, without responding or reacting.

Think of mindfulness meditation practice as a systematic way of focusing your attention during a set time to cultivate a broader, lasting state of mindfulness.

Purpose and benefits of mindfulness meditation

The techniques and therapies collectively referred to as mindfulness meditation or mindfulness therapy can improve physical and mental health and boost cognitive performance (Tang, 2015). More specifically, they can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. It’s thought that mindfulness and mindfulness meditation work not by eliminating the stresses in life but by helping you deal with them by dialing down your body’s response to stress (American Psychological Association, 2019).

Indeed, brain scans revealed that eight weeks of mindfulness techniques led to changes in volume, connectivity, and activity in key brain regions that improved the ability of healthy but anxious participants to regulate their emotions (Gotink, 2016). 

Other specific benefits of meditation:

  • Group mindfulness programs reduced symptoms of anxiety and panic for people with generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder, and helped these people maintain their improved condition (Kabat-Zinn, 1992).
  • Mindfulness-based therapy helped people ages 50 to 80 improve their sleep quality (Perini, 2021).
  • Mindfulness training in schools can improve kids’ behavior and wellbeing and help them sleep better (Chick, 2021).
  • Mindfulness programs can improve chronic pain management. Preliminary evidence suggests they could improve outcomes for stress-related diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and diabetes (Creswell, 2019).

The other side of mindfulness

While mindfulness offers many potential benefits, it’s not a cure-all. 

One study found evidence to suggest that people who practice mindfulness aren’t necessarily less stressed in the moment—during a test or while giving a speech, for example—but they tend to perceive their level of stress more favorably afterward (Saltsman, 2021).

And while mindfulness-based programs promote mental health better than taking no action, it’s not clear whether they’re better than other types of therapy. According to a review of 136 randomized controlled trials involving more than 11,000 participants, mindfulness doesn’t work for everyone (Galante, 2021).

“For the average person and setting, practicing mindfulness appears to be better than doing nothing for improving our mental health, particularly when it comes to depression, anxiety, and psychological distress,” said study leader Julieta Galante, Ph.D., a mental health researcher at the University of Cambridge. “But we shouldn’t assume that it works for everyone, everywhere.”

Why does mindfulness work?

Scientists think one reason mindfulness might work is by improving what’s called “extinction learning,” in which repeated exposure to something in a controlled setting can reduce a person’s anxiety or fear over that thing. In a rather shocking experiment, scientists found evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness paired with extinction learning (Björkstrand, 2019): 

Volunteers were split into two groups, one that engaged in mindfulness training for four weeks, and another that did not. Then in a lab, each person was repeatedly shown a purple square on a computer screen, then given “uncomfortable but not painful” electric shocks in their finger. Understandably, they soon developed a fear of that purple square, which scientists concluded by measuring the volunteers’ excess sweating. They were then shown the colored square without getting shocked, and as expected, based on the notion of extinction learning, their fear response declined—roughly the same for each group.

The next day, these hearty volunteers returned to get hooked up to the shock machine again. When shown the purple square, those that had practiced mindfulness reacted much differently than the others.

“The fear reactions in the mindfulness group remained at the same low level they had been by the end of extinction the previous day,” the researchers said, “indicating an improved ability to form and retain extinction memories, whereas the control group showed a substantial increase in fear reactions compared to extinction the previous day.”

Extinction learning is a common technique for helping people overcome anxiety and trauma, but it doesn’t work for everyone. This study suggests that’s because the fear extinction may not last.

“Our results suggest that if you combine mindfulness training with exposure therapy, maybe you can achieve larger and longer-lasting treatment effects,” said study leader Johannes Björkstrand, Ph.D., a lecturer in psychology at Sweden’s Lund University.

You don’t need an electric shock to benefit from mindfulness, of course.

Types of mindfulness meditation and therapy

There are many ways to practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere, including at work. You can take a few minutes to focus on breathing just after you wake up, letting thoughts come and go without dwelling on them. You can find a place at work to be quiet for a few minutes, and there’s even a technique to help avoid road rage while you are driving.

Likewise, there are many types of mindfulness meditation. Two techniques are among the most studied (American Psychological Association, 2019):

  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): Mindfulness is taught through meditation over several weeks, in group settings or on your own at home.
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT): To treat depression, mindfulness meditation is combined with a form of talk therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy to reduce negative thoughts and negative emotions (CBT).

When used for research purposes, these techniques typically last eight weeks with two hours of practice a week, plus home practice, and an intensive day-long teaching session (Behan, 2020).

Within those two categories and beyond, there are several session-oriented mindfulness meditation exercises you can try. 

How to practice mindfulness meditation

You can practice mindfulness meditation on your own, but guided meditations under the direction of a knowledgeable practitioner can be helpful. Classes are offered at many athletic clubs, hospitals, healthcare clinics, and yoga centers. There are also mindfulness apps, podcasts, and online options (American Psychological Association, 2019). 

In fact, a review of 15 randomized controlled trials found that online mindfulness-based interventions, in particular, “have a small but significant beneficial impact” on depression, anxiety, overall well-being and mindfulness and, most significantly, stress (Spijkerman, 2016). 

Here’s a very basic approach for beginners (Mayo Clinic, 2020):

  1. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
  2. Pay more attention to simple pleasures, such as food, or the sights, sounds, and smells during an everyday activity.
  3. Try to be in the moment by being open and accepting, either of a situation of your own self.

If your mind wanders during meditation sessions, that’s okay. Notice the fact and redirect your mind to the present moment.

Here’s the effect: “By doing this and by allowing thoughts to come and go without attachment, without trying to hold on to them, we learn that calm and stillness follows. We come to know our own minds over time and to be aware of patterns of thinking that habitually arise.” (Behan, 2020).

The effects of mindfulness training include enhanced mindfulness in everyday life, raising self-awareness to promote such things as more mindful interactions with family, mindfulness at work, and even mindful eating.

One of the best attributes of both mindfulness and mindfulness meditation is that they are defined as something to practice, so you’ll never perfect either one, there won’t be a test, and the emphasis is on not judging yourself or your thoughts. The doing of it is the whole point.

References

  1. American Psychological Association (2019) Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness/meditation
  2. American Psychological Association (n.d.) Dictionary of Psychology: mindfulness. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/mindfulness
  3. American Psychological Association (n.d.) Dictionary of Psychology: mindfulness meditation. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/mindfulness-meditation
  4. Behan C. (2020). The benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices during times of crisis such as COVID-19. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine; 37(4):256-258. doi: 10.1017/ipm.2020.38. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7287297/
  5. Björkstrand J, Schiller D, Li J, Davidson P, Rosén J, Mårtensson J, Kirk U. (2019). The effect of mindfulness training on extinction retention. Scientific Reports; 9(1):19896. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-56167-7. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-56167-7
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