Mindfulness seems to have sprung out of nowhere to become hugely popular overnight. But it’s been around since the late 1970s, and people have been practicing it in some form for thousands of years. Its beneficial effects on mind and body have been noted all over the world.
So, what is the magic of mindfulness? How can it help you? And how do you “do” it?
Rooted in Ancient Practice
At its heart, mindfulness is a simple concept: being aware of—and accepting—the present. The US Department of Veterans Affairs explains it this way:
“Awareness of the present involves observing thoughts, feelings, and sensations by focusing one’s attention on the current moment. While attending to the present, mindfulness also entails a stance of acceptance, or willingness to experience an array of thoughts and emotions without judgment.”
Current mindfulness practices have their roots in meditation practices of Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Two basic forms of meditation are 1) focusing your attention on a single thing (for example, a candle flame or your breath), and 2) insight meditation.
Mindfulness falls into the category of insight meditation, which involves observing thoughts, feelings and physical sensations without judgment. The result is objective awareness: becoming a witness to yourself and the world.
In 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist and long-time practitioner of meditation, founded one of the first and perhaps best-known mindfulness programs: mindfulness-based stress reduction. MSBR consists of classes and/or at-home exercises that build people’s capacity to respond to stress, anxiety and chronic pain.
The mindfulness movement has grown since the 1970s. Practices have been adapted for various mental health conditions, and mindfulness exercises are used in many settings—schools, medical practices, institutions, workplaces, and the military.
How Mindfulness Works
In addition to building awareness of thoughts and feelings, mindfulness strengthens awareness of our mind-body connection.
When we experience stress or trauma, we react. Even though we aren’t being chased by tigers (as our ancestors were), our “fight, flight or freeze” instinct kicks in. Our sympathetic nervous system ramps up to respond to the emergency (real or perceived), raising the heart rate and quickening the breath. OR the parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite; the “freeze” response slows everything down, including heart rates and blood pressure, in some cases to the point of fainting.
Mindfulness can help us react differently to stress and trauma. When you react based on past experience (“Gee, when my boss asks me to come into her office, it’s usually not good”), you are often not in control of your (or your body’s) reaction. You may hit the stress zone quickly and stay in it longer. You may develop unhealthy, habitual ways of dealing with your stress or trauma, such as drinking, smoking and avoidance. But when you become mindful of the stress and your emotions, your awareness opens doors, and you can choose a different reaction.
As we’ve noted, mindfulness involves two components:
- Attention – Observing thoughts, breath, physical sensations, feelings and/or surroundings.
- Acceptance – Observing without judgment; noting the thought, feeling or sensation and “releasing” it.
Focusing on and accepting whatever is in the present moment offers several advantages:
- More awareness of our feelings and thoughts, as we simply note them (instead of resisting them, editing them, or constantly reacting to them)
- Fewer knee-jerk reactions
- Less rumination (obsessive or repetitive thoughts)
- Greater capacity for change and letting go of unproductive habits and thinking
- An increased ability to respond to situations and people more effectively
Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness has benefits for both mental and physical health. Early research on the effects of the mindfulness-based stress reduction program found reduced symptoms for those suffering from anxiety and chronic pain. Those results have held true, and other mindfulness-based therapies have been adapted to treat various conditions, issues and needs:
- Anxiety and stress – Practicing mindfulness reduces symptoms of anxiety and helps people manage stress.
- Depression – Strong evidence exists that mindfulness practices reduce relapse rates for depression and improve symptoms.
- PTSD – Mindfulness can help reduce the repetitive, intrusive thoughts of PTSD. Being in the moment can help PTSD sufferers recognize their own emotional distress and trauma triggers; greater awareness and acceptance have been associated with reduced symptoms. Mindfulness can also engage and prepare people for formal interventions and treatments; observing emotions without judgment prepares people to tolerate the strong emotions present during trauma processing.
- Pain – Mindfulness interventions can improve pain management, particularly helpful with chronic pain.
- Immunity – Initial evidence indicates that mindfulness may reduce inflammatory markers in people with long-term illnesses, and help improve quality of life for those with conditions like fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome.
- Addiction – Mindfulness practices help treat drug, alcohol and tobacco addictions, and show promise with eating disorders.
In addition, research on meditation—with its mindfulness components—have revealed beneficial changes in the brain of practitioners that may help regulate emotional and improve focus and memory. Other findings point to less age-related deterioration of the brain, perhaps slowing the brain’s aging process.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Perhaps the most-used activity is breathing. When you have a spare five minutes, try sitting upright with your spine straight and focus on your breath. Feel it coming in and going out, focusing on one sensation at a time. This may be your abdomen expanding and contracting, or your chest rising and falling, or the sensation of cool air entering your nose and body-warmed air exiting.
Other activities you can use to practice mindfulness include walking (sensing your feet on the pavement, listening to birds), eating (focusing on temperature, texture and taste), and washing your hands (noting the smell of the soap and the temperature of the water).
It may sound strange or a little silly to focus so completely on everyday activities, but mindfulness is a simple, uncomplicated practice. How many times this week have you eaten dinner while watching TV, instead of really tasting the food? Have you multi-tasked while talking on the phone with someone? Do you remember the taste of the food or your conversation? No? Paying exclusive attention to activities will help you focus and calm your mind. If you’d like guidance for other mindfulness practices, check out the apps and videos below.
Mindfulness can help with many mental health issues, but it is not intended to replace the professional help you should seek for PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders that prevent you from living a full life. Best Day’s trained counselors are standing by to assist you.
Mindfulness Coach is a free app from the National Center for PTSD at the Department of Veterans Affairs that provides mindfulness education, exercises and strategies, along with a log that helps you track your progress.
“Mindfulness is … conceptualized as involving attention to and awareness of the present moment, and nonjudgmental acceptance.”
Mindfulness-based therapy “is an effective treatment for a variety of psychological problems, and is especially effective for reducing anxiety, depression, and stress.”
Khoury, et al., Clinical Psychology Review, 2013