The term “mindfulness” seems to be everywhere these days and perhaps for good reason. Spiritual practitioners, behavioral health treatment providers, and researchers are touting the many benefits of mindfulness. They tell us that by being more mindful we can improve our physical health, mental health, and our relationships. They encourage us to eat mindfully, play with our kids mindfully, and do our laundry mindfully. Many people have attended mindfulness retreats and practice various forms of mindfulness meditation. But, what does mindfulness mean, how does it help us, and how can we become more mindful?
One very simple and accurate definition of mindfulness is given to us by Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, the developer of a practice called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). He says mindfulness is, "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment. “ (Baime, 2009). Mindfulness is the ability to be present, to pay attention, and be fully engaged in each moment and experience. That doesn’t sound too difficult, right? However, in our multi-tasking world that travels at a warp speed every day, being mindful may seem like an impossible and unrealistic luxury.
Wouldn’t it be nice to just pause to notice and fully experience what’s happening around us? We are a society of multi-taskers, sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes out of habit. We’re pulled in a hundred directions, with multiple demands on our time and attention. But, do we really get more done when our attention is divided? On the other hand, maybe the present experience is painful because we are in physical or emotional pain, so the last thing we want to do is be present. We’d rather escape than be present and mindful. The practice of mindfulness may be more complex than we thought, but it may also offer more benefits than we ever realized.
The Many Benefits of Mindfulness
Taking the time to learn how to be more mindful is well worth the effort. Researchers are more interested than ever in how mindfulness and meditation affects our health and well-being. According to 2011 research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, there are several ways that mindfulness training can be good for our mental and physical health.
Stronger immune system functioning and improved physiological responses to stress and painful or negative emotions
2. Better relationships with family, friends, and even strangers
3. Decreased stress, anxiety, and depression, and increased sense of overall well-being
4. More openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and less negative neuroticism and reactivity in response to stressors
5. Improved psychological mindfulness, clear awareness, flexible thinking, and a more practical approach to reality
6. Increased consciousness and self-awareness (Zarcone, 2014)
So, how do psychological mindfulness practices, or mindfulness meditation, bring about these positive changes? First, we need to understand the differences between what we call psychological mindfulness and mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness, Meditation, and the Brain
During the practice of psychological mindfulness, we are staying open and fully present, focusing on whatever is happening in our daily life. For example, we may be fully present, focused and mindful while washing dishes or folding clothes. Mindfulness meditation practice is a type of meditation during which we focus on something specific, like our breath, a mantra, or visualization (Wayment, Wiist, Sullivan, and Warren, 2011). This enables us to bring our awareness and focus to the present moment.
The practice of mindfulness meditation has been shown to alter the very structure and neural pathways in positive ways. This type of meditation can strengthen areas of the brain that are associated with empathy and with processing our sensory experiences. Our brain can adapt and change in response to what we do and think, and regular practice of mindfulness meditation and actually change the structure of the brain in ways that increase health and well-being. Practicing this type of meditation, even once a day, can increase our overall ability to be mindful and present throughout the day (Wayment et al, 2011).
In addition to improving our sense of well-being, mindfulness practices can also be incorporated into more traditional psychotherapy approaches to improve outcomes and reduce symptoms of mental illness. For example, one study investigated an approach to treating Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) that combined Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) interventions (Rapgay, Bystritsky, Dafter, & Spearman 2011). Everyone worries from time to time, but individuals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder experience significant distress due to anxiety, excessive worry, and rumination that is difficult for them to control. They may also experience restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and irritable mood, sleep disturbance, and muscle tension. The disorder can also impact social functions, and can be accompanied by depression (Rapgay et al, 2011).
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is often treated with CBT interventions, but unfortunately this type is only effective about 50% of the time in reducing symptoms and preventing relapse (Rapgay, 2011). Adding MBSR interventions to CBT interventions may be the key to better symptom reduction for people living with this anxiety disorder. Researchers found that MBSR interventions have the potential to control some of the key symptoms of GAD. They also found that classical meditation and MBSR have different effects, but both can provide unique benefits that are not found with CBT alone (Rapgay et al, 2011). Other therapies that also incorporate mindfulness practices include Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and acceptance and commitment therapy. Researchers and behavioral health practitioners are seeing the benefit to combining these two approaches.
People living with the painful symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can also benefit from mindfulness practices. OCD is characterized by obsessive and compulsive thoughts and behaviors that are very difficult for the individual to control or stop. They experience intrusive thoughts that are often frightening or unpleasant, and powerful urges to engage in compulsive, repetitive behaviors like hand washing or counting, or repeatedly checking things. The disorder can become debilitating. Using PET scan technology in the 1980’s, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz found that people with OCD experience hyperactivity in the Orbital Frontal Cortex and the caudate areas of the brain, even when they were at rest (Volk, 2011).
Dr. Schwartz was interested in how the practice of mindfulness may impact this hyperactivity, and possibly reduce OCD symptoms (Volk, 2011). He found that, indeed, mindfulness enabled his patients to first notice their obsessive thoughts and behaviors, and then consciously choose to replace the thoughts and behaviors with more healthy ones. They were also able to attribute their symptoms to an illness, rather than being self-critical. Finally, Schwartz completed PET scans on his patients who had been practicing mindfulness. He found decreased activity in those areas of the brain that had been hyperactive before, indicating that mindfulness practice can change brain activity and reduce the symptoms of OCD (Volk, 2011).
Mindfulness and Chronic Pain
Mindfulness practices enable us to stay present to our experience, but what if our present experience is physically painful? Many people live with chronic pain due to an illness or injury. Chronic pain affects all aspects of life, from the ability to work to relationships with family. It can lead to isolation and depression. It’s natural to want to escape pain and make it go away-immediately. So, is it possible for mindfulness practices to help people with chronic pain?
In an early study by Zinn, Lipworth, and Burney (1985), ninety patients with chronic pain were trained in mindfulness meditation. The patients had significant reductions in present-moment pain, mood symptoms, negative body-image, anxiety and depression. Their activity level was also less inhibited by their chronic pain. Additionally, they were able to reduce their use of pain management medications. These improvements were not related to the patient’s age, gender, or type of pain, and improvements continued for up to 15 months after the meditation training. Perhaps most importantly, patients continued mindfulness meditation practices after the study ended. Patients participating in traditional treatment for chronic pain did not experience the same degree of improvement (Zinn, et al, 1985).
The Dangers of Being Mindless
There is an abundance of evidence that mindfulness and meditation can be good for us, but is it bad for us, or even dangerous, to be unmindful—or mindless? The opposite of being mindful is being mindless, or absent. When we are mindless, we are on autopilot and not fully present and aware. There are some obvious dangers of mindlessness including mindless driving and mindless eating. Often these behaviors occur when we are multi-tasking. Many of us laughed when we saw the girl in the video fall into the fountain at the mall because she was walking and texting. But other examples, like car accidents, are not funny. We have talked about the epidemic of multi-tasking in our modern world. We seem to rarely do one thing at one time, with our full attention, but maybe we should try that more often.
Multi-tasking is not as efficient and productive as we might think it is. Have you ever had a day when you felt very busy and stressed, but felt like you got absolutely nothing accomplished? Multi-tasking may be to blame. Author and productivity expert, Julie Morgenstern (2000) says that multi-tasking is bad for our brains and not efficient. Research has found that the brain can’t effectively switch between two tasks, so we actually lose time. It takes up to four times longer to recognize and respond to new things, and that’s not efficient. Additionally, we’re more likely to make mistakes when we’re doing five things at once. If we try to learn something while doing something else, we are less likely to remember the information—a good reason not to study while watching your favorite T.V. show (Morgensteen, 2000).
Lack of mindfulness can also cause us to be absent in our relationships, causing our loved ones to feel irritated with us, or abandoned by us. We are often in a mindless state when we do things that are hurtful to others or destructive to ourselves. Being present with our loved ones can help prevent escalated conflicts and knee-jerk reactions. When we can be mindful of ourselves, our bodies, and our thoughts, we are better able to resolve problems in a productive way. With mindfulness, we can respond instead of react to situations. Being present is also polite, and shows that you value the person and their time. No one likes to have a conversation with someone who is only half-way present.
So, how can we bring the benefits of mindfulness into our own lives? While mindfulness is definitely about paying attention, there is more to it than that. The ability to be mindful is a skill that can be learned and developed by anyone. Some may choose to develop their meditation practice, others may begin by being more mindful in their daily life, and some may try both. Some ways to be more mindful throughout the day include:
When the phone rings, pause and notice how your body feels. Notice any tension, and take a breath.
2. Notice your breathing for one minute. You can do this anytime, anywhere, and no one will even notice. You don’t have to change your breathing, just notice and be fully present with your breath.
3. Notice the natural world around you. Take moments to notice plants, animals, clouds, the moon, or any other natural thing in your environment, Take time to notice details about it, such as the color of the leaves, or the way the clouds are moving in the sky.
4. Notice things that you touch, or that touch you. Notice how jewelry and clothing feels on your skin, notice the feel of the pen in your hand.
5. Be mindful and slow down a bit during your regular activities. Wash your dishes mindfully, and with full attention. Give your attention to slowly folding your clothes.
6. Mindfully listen to music; really allow yourself to hear the sounds, in a non-judgmental way.
7. Eat slowly and mindfully, noticing the texture and taste of the food. Don’t do anything else while eating.
8. Practice noticing and appreciating things and people in your day that usually go unnoticed.
9. Be fully present and attentive in your conversations with others. Put down the phone, or turn away from the television or computer screen when talking with someone.
There are also a number of mindfulness meditation practices that can be helpful. Mindfulness meditation can be as simple as sitting for 10-20 minutes each day and observing the breath, or meditating on a word or mantra that is meaningful. During meditation, almost everyone experiences intrusive thoughts, and it’s important to just notice them, let them go, and return to your practice. This does not mean you are doing the meditation practice wrong. One of the benefits of meditation is developing the skill of gently bringing the focus back, and choosing what we want to attend to. Each time we do this we are strengthening our ability and the habit of being mindful. We are training our brain. These simple mindfulness practices can help you feel more centered throughout the day, and more present in your work and with the people you love.
Baime, M., MD. (2009). Practicing mindfulness. Retrieved September 1, 2014, from http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/blogs /practicing-mindfulness
Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L., & Burney, R. (1985). The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain - Springer. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 8(2). Retrieved September 2, 2014, from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00845519#page-1
Morgenstern, J. (2000). Time management from the inside out: The foolproof system for taking control of your schedule--and your life. New York: Henry Holt.
Rapgay, L., Bystritsky, A., Dafter, R. E., & Spearman, M. (2011). New strategies for combining mindfulness with integrative cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Rational Emotive and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, 29(2), 92-119. Retrieved September 2, 2014, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3087104/
Volk, S. (2013, December 11). Rewiring the brain to treat OCD. Retrieved September 2, 2014, from http://discovermagazine.com/2013/nov/14-defense-free-will
Wayment, H. A., Wiist, B., Sullivan, B. M., & Warren, M. A. (2011). Doing and being: Mindfulness, health, and quiet ego characteristics among Buddhist practitioners - Springer. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12, 575-589. Retrieved September 2, 2014, from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10902-010-9218-6#page-1