Most likely you’ve heard the term ‘mindfulness’, as the concept has recently made its way into the pop psych spotlight. And for good reason, too.
Many therapists, hospitals, and wellness centers are incorporating mindfulness techniques into their programs. Even high schools across the country are integrating mindfulness training into their health and PE curriculum. It’s catching on like wildfire, but why?
Our short answer: Mindfulness appeals to a wide audience because it is easy to practice and offers some very compelling rewards.
Mindfulness: What’s all the hype about?
Mindfulness is defined as:
a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
The two main components of mindfulness are 1) awareness and 2) acceptance.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation, but has evolved over the years to include many secular variations. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is largely responsible for the modern version of mindfulness since he developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979.
Greater Good puts it this way:
Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.
So what does mindfulness do, and how does it help?
It actually changes the brain!
In The Science of Mindfulness, Dr. Daniel Siegel outlines some key changes that take place in the brains of those who practice mindfulness meditation.
He describes a shift in the left frontal activity of the brain that cultivates an “‘approach state’, in which we move toward, rather than away from, a challenging external situation or internal mental function such as a thought, feeling, or memory.” This results in resilience and also aids the body’s ability to fight infection.
Students of mindfulness report an internal sense of stability and clarity, and adults and teens with ADD/ADHD report better attention and focus with mindfulness than with medication.
Dr. Siegel writes that mental health researchers have found mindfulness to be an essential component of their treatment strategies for obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, drug addiction, and chronically relapsing depression.
He also cites some of the recent scientific findings on mindfulness:
- University of New Mexico researchers found that participation in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course decreased anxiety and binge eating.
- Office workers who practiced MBSR for twenty minutes a day reported an average 11% reduction in perceived stress.
- Eight weeks of MBSR resulted in an improvement in the immune profiles of people with breast or prostate cancer, which corresponded with decreased depressive symptoms.
- A prison offering Vipassana meditation training for inmates found that those who completed the course showed lower levels of drug use, greater optimism, and better self-control, which could reduce recidivism.
- Fifth-grade girls who did a ten-week program of yoga and other mindfulness practices were more satisfied with their bodies and less preoccupied with weight.
- A mix of cancer patients who tried MBSR showed significant improvement in mood and reduced stress. These results were maintained at a checkup six months later.
- The likelihood of recurrence for patients who had experienced three or more bouts of depression was reduced by half through Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, an offshoot of MBSR.
- After fifteen weeks of practicing MBSR, counseling students reported improved physical and emotional well-being, and a positive effect on their counseling skills and therapeutic relationships. (source: The Science of Mindfulness)
For more on how mindfulness changes the brain, go here.
As you can see, the benefits of mindfulness are real and powerful. In our next post, we will discuss How to Practice Mindfulness.