The terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” have become such buzzwords in our current culture that one wonders if they are the psychological equivalent of the latest overhyped “lose weight quick” fad. However, mindfulness and meditation’s benefits have been experienced worldwide for at least 3,000 years! While mindfulness and meditation are closely related, I think it’s important to start with some simple definitions:
- Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment, intentionally, without judging what’s happening.
- Meditation is a more formal practice where the individual usually sits quietly, although it can also be done standing, lying or walking, as a means to train their attention and gain greater insight.
But let’s back up a second. I fear this is starting to sound a bit esoteric. While mindfulness is not easy, it is unbelievably simple. The instructions may go something like this:
- Pay attention to your breath (or whatever your object of focus might be)
- Notice when you get lost in thought
- Bring your attention back to your breath or object (i.e. the present moment)
That’s it! Now when you try the practice,
you’re first reaction will probably be, “I’m terrible at this.” However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact that you’ve noticed that you got lost in thought is the “secret sauce” that gives the practice it’s power. Every time you notice you get lost in thought, and then bring your attention back to the object of focus (the present moment), it is like doing a bicep curl for your brain. It is a powerful realization to notice just how scattered your mind normally is throughout the day – constantly questioning the past and worrying about the future!
Now this would all just be interesting conjecture if there wasn’t such a large body of scientific evidence supporting the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. My favorite study, which points to why mindfulness and meditation may be so useful in modern times, comes from the University of Virginia. The study, entitled Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind placed college undergrads and citizens from the local town in a room by themselves for 12-15 minutes. An ankle bracelet was placed on participants with which they could give themselves a painful electric shock if they chose. Overall, the participants reported the experience as extremely unpleasant and most of the men and ¼ of the women chose to administer themselves with a painful electric shock (maybe this proves women are smarter than men…). Just take a second to consider what this means: simply sitting with oneself peacefully in a room was so unpleasant that many of the participants preferred to cause themselves physical pain! I ask: if it is so uncomfortable to “just be” with ourselves, how are we going to truly have peace in our lives? I believe this is especially relevant to the younger generation who have a hard time being away from their phones for more than a minute.
As previously stated, there is a litany of scientifically validated benefits of mindfulness and meditation, too many to get into in this blog post. However, I thought it’d be interesting to touch on a few:
Addiction: In one study a mindfulness-based program was compared to the American Lung
Association’s Smoking Cessation Program. Participants in the mindfulness group were several times more likely to have quit smoking, and at a 17-week follow-up, were more likely to still be abstaining from smoking.
In addition, another study, among others, found that a mindfulness-based intervention (MBI) was associated with a larger reduction in alcohol and illicit substance use compared to Treatment As Usual (TAU), which consisted of psychoeducation, 12-step groups and relapse prevention groups.
Anxiety and Depression: A meta-analysis of studies that tested the
effects of mindfulness-based therapies on anxiety and depression found robust positive effects from these interventions. Also, in another meta-analysis Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was effective at preventing relapse of depression in individuals with chronic depression and in some studies was at least as effective as maintenance antidepressant therapy.
Physical Changes to Your Brain: New brain research has disproven the idea that you are stuck with the brain you were born with. It is now proven that the brain is “plastic” (neuroplasticity is the term used by brain researchers) and changes with changing experiences. Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar discovered that just eight weeks of a mindfulness meditation program actually thickened areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, emotion regulation, empathy and the area associated with neurotransmitter regulation. In addition, a decrease in thickness was shown in the area of the brain associated with stress and anxiety. In just 8-weeks participants actually changed their brain!
Now, while all this research is exciting and inspiring, it should be made clear that mindfulness and meditation are not a panacea that will solve all your problems. In terms of psychological applications, mindfulness and meditation is often best used as an adjunct to other proven treatments, including traditional psychotherapy and pharmacological treatments if prescribed by your doctor. However, I believe developing a simple meditation practice can be very beneficial for just about everyone. Remember, start slow! Even 5 minutes a day is a great place to begin and can show results!
If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness and meditation and how it could be clinically useful to you or a loved one suffering from mental illness or stress, visit http://insightactiontherapy.com/ We’d love to talk!
Matt Christian, MSW