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.
- Physical health: Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to produce other health benefits, such as reduced blood pressure and cortisol levels (a stress hormone).
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 gatestudy.org for more information.
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Date of original publication: November 10, 2014
Updated: February 10, 2016