We all fall into spiraling negative thought patterns from time to time, leading us to stress and even despair. One way to stop obsessing over the past or worrying about an imaginary future is to direct our attention to what we’re experiencing only in this moment.
That’s essentially what mindfulness meditation is. And there’s now a growing body of research showing that this kind of meditation is really beneficial for our mental wellbeing.
Mindfulness Meditation to Improve Mental Health
Mindfulness, according to the Mayo Clinic, has been linked to lower levels of stress, anxiety, insomnia, and depression. It is also thought to improve your focus and attention, as well as helping you experience thoughts and emotions with more balance and acceptance.
“Mindfulness meditation can be impactful and positive for all people regardless of mental health status,” says Talkspace therapist Christine Tolman, LCPC.
Focusing on the Present, Without Judgment
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that 14.2% of American adults surveyed in 2017 said they practiced meditation at least once in the past year. That’s a threefold increase from 2012. So before we delve into how this increasingly popular practice can bolster your mental health, let’s first look at exactly what mindfulness meditation is.
According to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, mindfulness is rooted in Buddist tradition and entails maintaining a careful tracking and awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens. It means being aware of your thoughts, but not getting caught up in them. This skill becomes particularly useful when you’re faced with difficult feelings or thoughts.
Mindfulness meditation, then, is the process of teaching the mind to be more present. It’s a type of meditation, writes the Mayo Clinic, in which you focus on being aware of what you’re sensing only in that one moment. For example, you might concentrate on your breathing, noting the inhales and exhales. Any time you are interrupted by a thought (which will happen!), you just gently bring your attention back to your breathing — with no judgment.
Another mindfulness technique is to focus on your five senses: what does the room smell like? What does your body feel like against the chair? Or you can do a body scan, which involves intentionally placing your attention on each part of your body in turn. Again, thoughts will inevitably crop up; you simply note them with compassion, and let them go.
“Mindfulness meditation is an opportunity to slow your mind down, let go of negative thinking or racing thoughts, and calm your mind and body,” says Tolman. “It involves living in the present moment and paying attention to your physical and mental self in that exact moment, and controlling your thought patterns.”
Mindfulness Builds Resilience To Stress
Mindfulness meditation is especially helpful for anxiety. “It can help the brain to create new neural pathways and decrease racing and/or negative thoughts,” explains Tolman. “It can work by both building new habits, and decreasing the temptation to engage in cyclical thinking.”
It makes intuitive sense, right? But the idea that mindfulness might be good for anxiety was recently backed up with hard evidence. A clinical trial led by a Georgetown University Medical Center researcher which was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health found “objective physiological evidence that mindfulness meditation combats anxiety.”
The study, published in January 2017 in Psychiatry Research, included 89 patients with generalized anxiety disorder. The researchers found that the patients had “sharply reduced stress-hormone and inflammatory responses to a stressful situation after taking a mindfulness meditation course.”
“These findings strengthen the case that [mindfulness meditation] can improve resilience to stress,” said lead author Elizabeth A. Hoge, MD, associate professor in Georgetown University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry.
Evidence of Mindfulness’s Benefits and Effectiveness
The American Psychological Association summarized the evidence surrounding mindfulness, which it defines as a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. Research on mindfulness shows that it can lead to:
- Reduced rumination
- Stress reduction
- Better memory
- Improved focus
- Less emotional reactivity
- More cognitive flexibility
- Improved relationship satisfaction.
According to the mental health nonprofit HelpGuide, psychologists have turned to mindfulness meditation in recent years in order to help treat depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, couples’ conflicts, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Mindfulness as a Preventative Measure
Meditation of this kind is best used as a preventative mental health skill.
“Practising daily will help you to build the skill and work to prevent anxiety in the long run,” says Tolman. “Try one minute in the morning before you get out of bed, or in the evening as you go through your nighttime routine.” Mindfulness may be a routine you get into that keeps you centered throughout your day and week. You may return to those places of peace and calm when you feel yourself stressed later.
Living In The Moment Is Challenging, But Offers Many Benefits
Essentially, mindfulness is simply a type of meditation practice in which you train your mind to simply rest in the present moment. “Begin with a small amount of time, and a great deal of self-compassion,” advises Tolman. “It is tough to create new thoughts and to change your thinking patterns. Just like building any new skill it takes time and effort.”
voiding going down rabbit-holes of negative thinking means that mindfulness offers a number of benefits for mental health. It is especially effective at building resilience against stress, therefore improving the symptoms of anxiety.
Tolman’s final words of advice? “The first time you sit down to meditate, it might be terrible! And that is okay. Remind yourself that you are learning something new, and it will take time to develop the skill. Start with one or two minutes, and increase in time as it feels right for you. Guided meditation can also be a nice way of starting out, as you don’t have to do it all alone.” If you’re struggling with mindfulness meditation, connect with a licensed online therapist who can offer and facilitate personalized practices. You may find that mindfulness meditation opens up whole new worlds for you.