Mindfulness has been touted as the cure for everything from improved focus to generating a kinder community to eliminating violence. Sound too good to be true? Millions of individuals have endorsed the benefits of mindfulness but how do you know if this highly touted practice is something that would benefit you? Here we’ll take a look at what some have dismissed as a fad and others have proclaimed to be a life-changing technique. If, as Sir Francis Bacon said, “knowledge is power,” by the end of this article you will have the power of knowledge in regard to mindfulness.
Mindfulness has its roots in Eastern spiritual practice. Today, most practitioners use a form of mindfulness that is secular, not religious. Figures as diverse as the Dalai Lama, Kobe Bryant, Oprah, Paul McCartney, and Lady Gaga have all endorsed the healing properties of mindfulness which is at its most basic, a form of meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a former professor and founder of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, is the person most often associated with the Western mindfulness movement which has been described as, “paying attention on purpose.” More specifically, practitioners learn to observe their thoughts and body sensations in the present moment with a non-judgmental attitude.
Simply paying attention to what you are experiencing in the present moment doesn’t sound too difficult or earth-shattering, does it? You’d be surprised! If you want to get a taste of what mindfulness entails, find a comfortable place to sit or lay down and eliminate your normal distractions—no television, music or phone. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing: how the outside air goes into and out of your nostrils. If your mind starts to wander away from your breath, simply bring your focus back to your breathing, which may be easier said than done. If you’re finding it harder to achieve mindfulness than you thought it would be, you’re not alone!
Most individuals who have a serious interest in learning how to mindfully meditate start off by taking a class—you can find these online if you’re interested in exploring more. To get back to our original point, what, if any, benefits are there to be had from establishing a mindfulness practice? To answer this question, it’s important to consider the empirical evidence. Empirical evidence is a fancy phrase for scientific research data that has been gathered by experts in their field. So, what do the studies on mindfulness reveal about what happens when one engages in this practice?
The Effects of Mindfulness
Overall, most experts agree that the evidence is far from conclusive. In general, there is some research that suggests that mindfulness meditation practice can result in psychological, social and physiological benefits, while there remain many questions about exactly how mindfulness works to alleviate stress and other symptoms.
For example, a recent large study in the Journal of American Medical Association concluded that meditation programs were associated with small to moderate decreases in subject anxiety, depression, and pain. The study included over 3,500 participants and the researchers noted that the decreases were, “comparable with what would be expected from the use of an antidepressant,” within the general population. According to the authors, the use of meditation was not revealed to be more beneficial than therapy, exercise or prescription drugs on any outcomes of interest, but meditation did not appear to be associated with any toxic or harmful side effects. Overall they agreed that the study results indicated some benefits were gained from a meditation program but it should not be considered a solution for all modern ailments.
There is no doubt that the mindfulness movement is popular and a global phenomenon. According to the Dalai Lama, he spends around five hours in meditation each day. One study of Buddhist monks who similarly spend many hours meditating each day revealed positive changes in their brains that were chalked up to contemplative practice. In the study, researchers recorded MRI scans of the subjects’ brains while meditating. Overall, they found that the part of the brain linked to the immune system was activated during meditation. Can a meditation practice like mindfulness help people who struggle with mental health issues such as anxiety, substance use disorder or depression? How about somatic issues such as chronic pain?
What Can’t Mindfulness Do?
Experts agree that simply learning how to live in the here and now won’t cure depression, but it has the potential to mediate some of the symptoms associated with it. For example, studies show that some mindfulness study participants report a decrease in levels of anxiety and hopelessness. Likewise, some chronic pain study participants report a reduction in symptoms following meditation. On the flip side of the coin, many others do not report such results, and there is agreement among most experts that much more research is needed before the impact of mindfulness on one’s well-being can be determined.
Indeed, one of the biggest misconceptions about meditation and mindfulness is that they automatically bring about a sense of calm and inner peace. Study results on the effects of mindfulness show that participants’ experiences vary widely, and stress can actually be increased, not decreased while trying to be mindful. This can occur when individuals who have experienced a traumatic event find that sitting and reflecting may bring painful memories to the surface that they did not expect nor prepare for. As with any other life endeavor, it is important to do a bit of homework, and consult with your health care practitioner as needed, before embarking on a course of action that has the potential to affect your health and well-being. We hope the information in this article has been helpful to you!
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