Mindfulness is a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings and sensations. The idea is to allow thoughts, feelings and sensations to come and go, without judgement or the need to do anything with them.
It involves a gentle acceptance of whatever comes into your awareness in the moment. It’s not so much about reaching an end goal, but about exploring your experience and expanding your awareness of your own inner world – the things that drive you, motivate you, get in your way, trip you up, keep you stuck. The more you practice mindfulness, the more you will come to understand how your thoughts, feelings or sensations influence each other, as well as your mood and the way you respond to the world.
Research has shown that mindfulness can change the physiology of the body and brain in ways that strengthen, heal and protect. There are so many benefits that stream from mindfulness, all proven through research. Here are some of them:
- Lowers stress.
Mindfulness lowers the physiological markers of stress and improves the brain’s ability to manage stress. Mindfulness does this by increasing the connectivity in the area of the brain that is important to attention and executive control (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex).
- Restores emotional balance.
Emotional situations can knock any of us off balance. The damage comes in the intensity or the duration of this. Mindfulness can help to improve recovery from emotional situations by keeping the emotional brain in check.
- Increases resilience.
Practising mindfulness for as little as 25 minutes, for three consecutive days, has been shown to increase resilience to psychological stress.
- Reduces anxiety.
Mindfulness has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety in adolescents, and in adults by up to 38%. It does this by increasing activity in the part of the brain that processes cognitive and emotional information, and the part of the brain that controls worrying.
- Slows aging
Mindfulness can slow the progression of age-related cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s and other dementia. It has been shown to increase the connections in the parts of the brain that are activated when people remember the past or think about the future. (The greater the connectivity, the stronger that part of the brain and the better it will work.) Two hours of mindfulness a week can slow down atrophy in the hippocampus (the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions, learning and memory).
- Reduces physical pain.
Mindfulness has been shown to significantly reduce pain without activating the body’s opioid system, reducing the potential for addictive side effects. This is important for anyone who experiences ongoing physical pain, particularly people who have built up a tolerance to opiate based drugs.
- Reduces depression.
Mindfulness can reduce the symptoms of depression and the recurrence of depression.
- Strengthens adolescent mental health.
Protects against the development of stress, anxiety or the later development of depression in adolescents.
- Uncovers our own blind spots.
Mindfulness can help to expand our awareness of our own internal world by uncovering our own blind spots in terms of patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour. This increased self-awareness can improve decision-making, academic achievement, life satisfaction, and help to reduce emotional and interpersonal problems.
- Improve sleep quality, reduce fatigue.
A regular mindfulness practice can improve sleep quality, and reduce insomnia and fatigue.
- Improves concentration.
Mindfulness can improve executive attention, increasing the ability to concentrate and ignore distractions. This is crucial for academic success for all children, particularly those with ADHD. (Findings presented by Dominic Crehan and Dr Michelle Ellefson (University of Cambridge) at the British Psychological Society’s Cognitive Developmental Psychology Annual Conference at the University of Reading 2013.)
There are plenty of ways to practice mindfulness. Here are 13 of them.
Mindfulness can be tricky at first. Our minds are used to wandering, and we will often be tempted to fix on a thought or a feeling, judge it as good or bad, or work hard to analyse or change it. Sometimes this will be useful, but we also need to be able to sit with our experience and be fully in the moment, without being dragged away by thoughts or feelings that might do damage if they hold on for too long. The truth is, the only place we can fully be is here and now. Of course, it is important to plan for the future or reflect on the past, but it’s about balance.