Why Mindfulness? The Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a psychological skill that can be learnt (Carmody & Baer, 2008), with research suggesting that this skill gets stronger with practice. This means it becomes easier to practice mindfulness, and easier to be mindful in everyday situations (Carmody & Baer, 2008). So what’s so special about mindfulness, and why should you take the time to develop this skill? Scientific research suggests that being more mindful is associated with a range of wellbeing and health benefits. In contrast, associations have been observed between spending too much time on autopilot (i.e. the opposite to mindfulness) and increased stress, anxiety, depression and physical health complaints. The specific benefits of mindfulness, observed during empirical investigations, are further discussed below.
Physical Health Benefits
- A series of investigations were conducted by eminent Harvard researcher Ellen Langer (2009) with elderly populations. As a result of increasing mindfulness within this sample, they observed decreased adverse health symptoms, such as arthritis pain and alcoholism, increased scores on intelligence tests, and improved height, weight, gait and posture. By all accounts, the participants appeared to “grow younger” as a result of the mindfulness intervention.
- Numerous mindfulness studies have been conducted with individuals with symptoms of pain, with findings invariably suggesting that mindfulness practice results in significant improvements in subjective ratings of pain, other medical symptoms, and general psychological symptoms (Rosenzweig et al., 2010).
- There is also an increasing body of evidence which suggests mindfulness has a positive therapeutic effect on a variety of medical conditions, including psoriasis (Kabat-Zinn et al.,1998), type 2 diabetes (Rosenzweig et al., 2007), fibromyalgia (Grossman et al., 2007), rheumatoid arthritis (Pradhan et al., 2007; Zautra et al., 2008), chronic low back pain (Morone, Greco & Weiner, 2008), and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (Zylowska et al., 2008).
- Mindfulness training has also consistently been found to reduce symptoms of stress and negative mood states, and to increase emotional well-being and perceived quality of life in individuals with chronic illness (cf. Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007; Grossman et al., 2004; Ludwig & Kabat-Zinn, 2008; Shigaki, Glass, & Schopp, 2006).
- Investigations with individuals with numerous types of cancer suggests that mindfulness practice can result in lower levels of cortisol (i.e. stress hormone) and normalized immune functioning (Carlson et al., 2007; Witnek-Janusek et al., 2008).
- Further suggesting that mindfulness can improve immune system functioning is findings from research with HIV patients (Robinson, Mathews, & Witnet-Janusek, 2003). Mindfulness practice was found to increase natural killer cell activity as well as increase the production of β-chemokines, molecules that block HIV from infecting healthy immune cells.
- Mechanistic research has also been done to investigate how mindfulness positively impacts physical health. For instance, an 8-week mindfulness program found that individuals with the largest increase in prefrontal cortex brain activity had the strongest antibody responses to a flu vaccine (Davidson et al., 2003), which suggests that perhaps neurological changes underpin the numerous physical health benefits observed.
- Mindfulness meditation has been associated with lower levels of psychological distress, including decreased anxiety, depression, anger, and worry (Baer, 2003; Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007; Greeson & Brantley, 2009; Grossman et al., 2004).
- A recent randomized controlled trial (RCT) – considered the gold standard in scientific investigation – found that 4 weeks of mindfulness training was superior at reducing psychological distress and decreasing rumination (i.e. excessive worrying) compared to relaxation training and a no-intervention control group (Jain et al., 2007).
- Another RCT found that mindfulness meditation produced greater increased parasympathetic nervous system activity than a standard relaxation training technique, suggesting mindfulness is superior to other established methods in calming the nervous system (Ditto, Eclache, & Goldman, 2006).
- Another study found that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training significantly reduced ruminative thinking in persons with a history of depression (Ramel et al., 2004); suggesting that mindfulness has transformative influence over ways of thinking, potentially explaining the improvements observed in emotional well-being.
- Research conducted with people with higher natural levels of mindfulness – irrespective of formal mindfulness training – found that they report feeling less stressed, anxious and depressed, and more joyful, inspired, grateful, hopeful, content, vital, and satisfied with life than less naturally mindful individuals (Baer et al., 2006; Brown & Ryan, 2003; Cardaciotto et al., 2008; Feldman et al., 2007; Walach et al., 2006). In addition to the mental health benefits of mindfulness, simply being in a mindful state momentarily has been associated with a greater sense of well-being (Lau et al., 2006).
- Research further suggests that individuals with more developed mindfulness skills are better able to regulate their sense of well-being by virtue of greater emotional awareness, understanding, acceptance, and the ability to correct or repair unpleasant mood states (Baer et al., 2008; cf. Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007; Feldman et al., 2007). This ability to skillfully regulate one’s internal emotional experience in the present moment may translate into good mental health long-term.
- A number of different mindfulness-based training programs – including Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) – can effectively treat serious mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders (MBSR; ACT), recurrent major depression (MBCT), chronic pain (MBSR; ACT), borderline personality disorder (DBT), and binge eating disorder (MB-EAT) (Baer, 2006).
- One study of the neurological benefits of mindfulness found that 5 days of mindfulness training led to significantly improved executive attention during a computerized attention test (Tang et al., 2007).
- Research further suggests that focused mindfulness practices can increase one’s ability to maintain steady attention on a chosen object, like the breath or another person, and that open awareness mindfulness practices can increase one’s ability to flexibly monitor and redirect attention when it becomes distracted (Lutz et al., 2008).
- In regards to emotions, more mindful people have been found to have refined emotional regulation abilities, which through brain imaging studies, has been linked to having a highly engaged prefrontal cortex. Unsurprisingly, it is these areas of the brain that are also associated with attention and concentration (Creswell, Eisenberger, & Lieberman, 2008; Creswell et al., 2007).
- Another study conducted in a corporate setting also found that mindfulness training led to changes in electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex, which was observed in concordance with the experience of positive emotions, such as joy and contentment (Davidson et al., 2003).
- An MRI study found that compared to matched controls, mindfulness meditators had increased grey matter (i.e. nerve cells) in numerous brain regions (Hölzel et al., 2007). More recently, a cause-effect relationship has been established between mindfulness practice and grey matter density. That is, mindfulness was found to directly lead to brain growth. In an 8 week mindfulness study, participants regional brain grey matter density significantly increased in the parts of the brain responsible for learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, and perspective taking (Hölzela et al. 2011).
- Studies conducted in a business context have shown that increases in mindfulness are associated with increased creativity and decreased burnout (Langer, Heffernan, & Kiester, 1988). Furthermore, findings suggested that as mindfulness increased, so did all markers of productivity.
- Mindfulness has also been found to lead to less impulsivity and reactivity, meaning that people are more considered and able to behave in accordance with their values. In this way, mindfulness has been shown to be instrumental in breaking harmful habitual behaviour patterns, such as smoking a cigarettes when feeling stressed (Davis et al., 2007), eating comfort food when feeling sad or “empty” (Kristeller, Baer, & Quillian-Wolever, 2006), or turning to alcohol or other substances to “numb out” when feeling overwhelmed (Bowen et al., 2006; Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007).
- Mindfulness may also promote better health, in part, by improving sleep quality, which can be disrupted by stress, anxiety and difficulty turning off the mind (Winbush, Gross, & Kreitzer, 2007).
In summary, mindfulness is a psychological skill that can be learnt through education and instruction and developed through training and practice. Additionally, the development of mindfulness skills has been empirically associated with numerous psychological, physical, neurological, and behavioural benefits. The vast benefits that have been associated with mindfulness strongly suggest we should all make an effort to cultivate mindfulness skills in our own lives.
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Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking about about the benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
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