People have been meditating for centuries, often as part of a spiritual practice. But in more recent years, mindfulness has become a popular way to help people manage their stress and improve their overall well-being — and a wealth of research shows that it’s effective. Psychologists have found that mindful meditation changes our brain and biology in positive ways, improving mental and physical health.
What is Mindful Meditation?
As a practice, mindful meditation is a non-sectarian form of meditation. It is intended to develop the skill of paying attention to ourselves and the world, and to encourage compassion, acceptance and kindness in meeting whatever is found there. It also brings awareness and presence to a person, helping one to avoid functioning without reflection.
When mindful meditation is practised formally, the breath is usually used as an anchor for the attention. By following the breath, the mind has something to focus on and can gently be brought back every time it wanders. Attention may also be focused on physical sensations in the body or on the senses of touch, smell, taste, hearing, or sight. Daily practice is recommended to develop the mental discipline, stability, and concentration that this practice both requires and builds.
Mindful meditation combines the concepts of mindfulness and meditation. When you are mindful, you remain present in the moment. You are aware of what’s going on around you while staying connected to your inner thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness keeps you from overreacting or getting overwhelmed in stressful situations.
Mindful meditation allows you to explore the inner workings of your mind. The practice also involves exploring different sensations produced by actions like breathing or inhaling scents.
There have been countless studies conducted on the effects of mindful meditation, such as managing discomfort, decreasing blood pressure and heart rate, improving the quality of sleep, increasing energy levels, sharpening mental function, elevating and stabilising mood, improving relationships, and building resilience.
What Happens During Mindful Meditation?
A simple way to think of it is training your attention to achieve a mental state of calm concentration and positive emotions.
Mindfulness is one of the most popular meditation techniques. It has two main parts: attention and acceptance.
The attention piece is about tuning into your experiences to focus on what's happening in the present moment. It typically involves directing your awareness to your breath, your thoughts, the physical sensations in your body, and the feelings you are experiencing. The acceptance piece involves observing those feelings and sensations without judgement. Rather than responding or reacting to those thoughts or feelings, you aim to note them and let them go.
Mindful meditation classes and mindfulness-based therapies provide the tools to put those concepts into practice. Such programs might include breathing exercises, yoga, and guided lessons to help you become aware of your body sensations, thoughts and feelings.
Much of the research on mindful meditation has focused on two types of interventions:
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a therapeutic intervention that involves weekly group classes and daily mindfulness exercises to practice at home, over an 8-week period. MBSR teaches people how to increase mindfulness through yoga and meditation.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a therapeutic intervention that combines elements of MBSR and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to treat people with mental health conditions.
Health Benefits of Mindful Meditation
Researchers reviewed more than 200 studies of mindful meditation among healthy people and found that mindfulness-based therapy was especially effective for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Mindfulness can also help treat people with specific problems including mental health disorders like PTSD and addiction.
Some of the most promising research has looked at people with depression. Several studies have found, for example, that MBCT can significantly reduce relapse in people who suffer from depression or anxiety. What's more, mindfulness-based interventions can improve physical health too. For example, mindfulness may reduce pain, fatigue, and stress in people with chronic pain. Other studies have found preliminary evidence that mindful meditation might boost the immune system.
How Mindful Meditation Works
How could simply tuning into your thoughts and feelings lead to so many positive outcomes throughout the body? Researchers believe the benefits of mindful meditation are related to its ability to dial down the body's response to stress.
Chronic stress can impair the body's immune system and make many other health problems worse. By lowering the stress response, mindful meditation may have downstream effects throughout the body.
Psychological scientists have found that mindfulness influences two different stress pathways in the brain, changing brain structures and activity in regions associated with attention and emotion regulation. Scientists are also beginning to understand which elements of mindful meditation are responsible for its beneficial effects.
In a review of meditation studies, psychology researchers found strong evidence that people who received MBCT were less likely to react with negative thoughts or unhelpful emotions in times of stress. They also found moderate evidence that people who participated in MBCT or MBSR were better able to focus on the present and less likely to worry and to think about a negative thought or experience over and over.
Getting Started with Mindful Meditation
Ready to give it a try? Learning mindful meditation is easier than ever. Mindfulness classes and interventions are widely available in settings including yoga centres, athletic clubs, hospitals and clinics, though the classes can vary in their approach. Find a practitioner trained in MBSR or MBCT — interventions that have the most evidence of benefits.
A number of mindfulness-based interventions are now available online or through smartphone apps as well, although more long-term research is needed to explore how they affect the body and the brain. Still, early studies have found that online mindfulness-based interventions can have a positive effect on mental health.
It can take a little while for mindful meditation to feel natural and to become a part of your regular routine. But with practice, you may discover a powerful tool for relieving stress and improving well-being.
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