HealthFacts about the effects of mindfulness

Facts about the effects of mindfulness

A mindful person is reflective rather than reactive. They focus on the present moment. What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is a process that leads to a mental state characterized by nonjudgmental awareness of the present experiences, such as sensations, thoughts, bodily states, and the environment. It enables us to distance ourselves from our thoughts and feelings without labeling them as good or bad.

How Does Mindfulness Work?

By focusing our attention on the present moment, mindfulness counteracts rumination and worrying. Worrying about the future (e.g. I better remember to pay those bills and clean my house this weekend) and ruminating about the past (e.g., I should have done this rather than that) are generally maladaptive thinking processes. Of course, it is important to learn from our past and plan ahead for the future; however, when we spend too much time outside of the present moment, we can get depressed and anxious. In such cases, mindfulness can be an important tool for helping us to better focus on the present moment.

Research has shown that mindfulness helps us reduce anxiety and depression. Mindfulness teaches us how to respond to stress with awareness of what is happening in the present moment, rather than simply acting instinctively, unaware of what emotions or motives may be driving that decision. By teaching awareness for one’s physical and mental state in the moment, mindfulness allows for more adaptive reactions to difficult situations.

Mindfulness works through a number of ways. It encourages us to open up and accept our emotions. As a result we are better able to identify, experience, and process our emotions. Mindfulness also encourages us to see things from different perspectives. For example, if your spouse snaps at you, you might blame yourself and worry that you’ve done something to upset him/her. If you are able to distance yourself from your immediate response of being hurt, you might remember that your spouse mentioned a hard day at work, and perhaps they snapped at you because they’re tired and stressed out. This new interpretation could alleviate some of your worry and negative feelings. The practice of mindfulness has been shown to benefit the following areas:

  • Body awareness: Body awareness is the ability to notice subtle sensations in the body and self-report findings indicate that mindfulness leads to greater perceptions of body awareness. Being aware of your internal emotional state is necessary to being able to better regulate those emotions.
  • Focused attention: Mindfulness practice improves one’s ability to focus attention. Neuroimaging studies have shown that mindfulness increases activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a brain area that is involved in executive function and attention. Through better control of attention, it can be easier to focus on a present task, rather than being distracted by worry.
  • Self-perception: Mindfulness also changes one’s perspective of oneself. Buddhist psychology teaches that the self is not permanent and static, but rather made up of ongoing mental events. Two months of mindfulness meditation practices have been shown to increase self-esteem and self-acceptance.

Mindfulness in Practice

There is no big secret behind mindfulness practices. Any activity can become mindful by focusing on the experience of the present moment. For example, you can either mindlessly gobble down your meal or take a little bit of time and practice mindful eating by looking at the food, smelling the food, noticing the different flavors and the texture of the food while slowly eating it. Not surprisingly, it is much more enjoyable and satisfying when you eat mindfully than when you eat mindlessly. Interestingly, you will also notice that you will consume less when you start eating mindfully.

There are many practices that include mindfulness trainings, such as tai chi, yoga, and zen. There are many styles for each of these activities, so it is worthwhile to experiment with different practices until you find one that suits you. As you become more mindful, you will also notice that you will become more centered, happier, and less depressed and this in turn has a direct positive effect on your anxiety.

How to be Mindful Right Now

Focus on your breath for a few minutes. Feel your chest rise and fall, notice the sensation of the breath as it enters and exits your nose. When your mind wanders, simply return your attention to the breath. Focus on the present moment: the here and now. Notice this very moment; it feels good to be alive, right now.

If you don’t immediately feel a complete release of anxiety, remember: most of the benefits of mindfulness require consistent practice. While some changes bolster against anxiety even after one single yoga class, most benefits require several weeks, months, and even years to create a noticeable change. And, like any skill, you will need to continue to practice mindfulness after you start to maintain the improvements.

Interested in participating in a research treatment study for anxiety? Visit for more information.

Research Assistant at Boston University

Shelley Kind is the research assistant for Dr. Stefan Hofmann’s lab at Boston University, where she coordinates two grant-funded studies and co-instructs a 12-week Positive Affect Training for patients with dysthymic symptoms. The training is focused on mindfulness and loving kindness meditation.

She received her Bachelor of Arts degrees in Psychology and English from Colby College. She worked previously as a research assistant for Dr. Chris Soto in Colby’s Personality Lab and for Dr. Erin Sheets in Colby’s Emotion and Mood Lab. She hopes to continue her research and clinical education in a PhD program.

Professor of Psychology at Boston University

Stefan G. Hofmann, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology at the Department of Psychology at Boston University where he directs the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory. He is also the editor-in-chief of Cognitive Therapy and Research, and the Associate Editor of Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. He was the 2013-2014 president of Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy and is the 2014-2017 president of the International Association for Cognitive Psychotherapy.

Dr. Hofmann’s research focuses on the mechanism of treatment change, translating discoveries from neuroscience into clinical applications, emotions, and cultural expressions of psychopathology. He is currently the Principal Investigator of an NIH study examining yoga as a treatment for generalized anxiety disorder and an NIH study examining d-cycloserine to augment cognitive behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder.He published more than 300 peer-reviewed journal articles and 15 books. He is the recipient of many awards, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science.


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