What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness has become increasingly popular in recent years, with mindfulness practices being adopted across distinct segments, from doctors recommending mindfulness techniques to combat stress and anxiety, to businesses in the corporate world implementing a culture of mindfulness to enhance operations and improve employee wellbeing.

Although its recent surge in popularity gives the impression that it is a new idea, the concept of mindfulness-based therapies has been around since the 1970s, and the skill of mindfulness itself is something that is innately human - with mindfulness techniques developed to train this inherent skill.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness. Image Credit: KieferPix/Shutterstock.com

What is the definition of mindfulness?

Mindfulness is maintaining a conscious awareness of our thoughts and feelings, bodily sensations, and our external environment in a way that does not make us feel overwhelmed, but centers us and keeps us in the present moment.

Many mindfulness techniques emphasize practicing acceptance, meaning that thoughts, feelings, sensations, environmental stimuli that we become conscious of should not be judged, merely acknowledged. The goal of mindfulness is to bring a person’s consciousness into the present moment, preventing rumination or anxiety over future imagined scenarios, it also intends to reduce stress and induce a sense of calm by developing a non-judgmental and non-reactive cognitive strategy.

People practice mindfulness in many different ways, from guided sessions with trained practitioners or psychologists to integrated meditation and mindfulness classes, and recently, several apps have emerged that train and guide users through mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness techniques employed by these different ways of practice can vary greatly because there are numerous routes to achieving the goal of bringing non-judgmental awareness to the present. Techniques can involve breathing activities, walking, seating or standing mediation, cognitive training, and integrated mindfulness with activities such as yoga and sports.

Mindfulness has its origins in Buddhist mediation although since the 1970s the practice has been widely adopted by people of all cultures and religions. The development of the mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979 helped establish mindfulness as a recognized technique in various settings, including schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans centers, and more.

Since its widespread adoption, scientists have keenly studied the physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness. Over the decades, a wealth of evidence has accumulated, demonstrating the value that mindfulness brings to overall health and wellbeing as well as its uses in addressing specific illnesses, such as anxiety.

The benefits of mindfulness

A wealth of research exists demonstrating the efficacy of mindfulness strategies at alleviating symptoms of various psychological and physical illnesses. In some cases, the evidence of the positive impact is quite strong, in others, data suggests the potential of mindfulness to work alongside other therapies, with more research required.

Anxiety is a serious mental health problem that impacts almost 1 in 5 American adults each year. The symptoms can range from mild to life-changing, with some people’s personal and work lives severely impacted by the illness. While there are several therapies proven to have high levels of efficacy in treating anxiety, a significant portion of those suffering anxiety do not receive treatment or go on to develop a chronic condition.

Many studies have shown mindfulness to be effective at reducing symptoms of anxiety. Some scientists hypothesize its efficacy against anxiety is related to how mindfulness alters one’s perspective, it allows a person to face and accept their internal cognitive, emotional, and physical experiences without fear or concern.

Many studies have also demonstrated the potential efficacy of mindfulness training as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some evidence has suggested that mindfulness training may improve behavioral and neurocognitive impairments associated with the disorder, however, more studies are needed to uncover more about this relationship.

Evidence has also shown the potential for mindfulness techniques to improve symptoms of chronic pain. Again, more research is needed to learn more about the nature of mindfulness in this complex psychological, emotional, and physical condition.

In addition, mindfulness has been shown to be a significant predictor of multiple mental health-related variables. Multiple studies have found mindfulness strategies effective in treating those with depression and even schizophrenia, although not all evidence collected agrees, and more research is needed to understand how mindfulness impacts these illnesses.

Mindfulness has also been explored in how it may impact physical illnesses, with most research investigating how it may influence heart disease, given its links with stress reduction.

Heart disease is considered by the World Health Organization to be one of the world’s top 10 causes of death. A multitude of factors contributes to the risk of heart disease, prognosis, and outcome, including stress. Given mindfulness’s impact on reducing stress, scientists have explored the use of mindfulness strategies in preventing and managing heart disease.

Some studies have been able to show that mindfulness can help teach people to control their heart rate, which could be potentially developed into a technique to maintain heart rate within a healthy range. Again, further studies are required to understand the full potential of mindfulness as a therapeutic approach to heart disease.

How mindfulness changes the emotional life of our brains | Richard J. Davidson | TEDxSanFrancisco

Summary

Overall, mindfulness techniques are related to enhanced overall wellbeing, with research hinting that they have some efficacy at addressing physical, psychological, or emotional symptoms or ailments. More research is needed to fully appreciate the potential of mindfulness strategies in healthcare.

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Last Updated: May 18, 2021

Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.

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