Mindfulness is a state of deliberate and conscious awareness directed toward the present moment. The practice is incredibly simple on paper, but with diligent practice can reap many, many benefits.
A great entry level exercise to mindfulness is the 100 Breaths Meditation. It teaches you how to use your breathing as an object of focus, by deliberately directing your awareness toward the motions of your breath. The goal is to remain fixated on your breath, while ignoring distractions and any other outside stimuli. Often the stronger and more focused your awareness becomes, the more you enter into a state of relaxation, bliss, and insight.
(If you’re serious about practicing this stuff, I also recommend reading a post I wrote awhile back called Mindfulness of Mindlessness. This one was intended to help people overcome the common problem of getting too distracted during meditation. It emphasizes how in fact acknowledging your distractions is a key first step toward cultivating greater mindfulness. This is true for both meditation, and also practicing mindfulness throughout our daily life.)
The purpose of this article, however, is to put together a list of all the ways mindfulness has been scientifically shown to improve our physical and mental health. It is a complete list of all the benefits I know that come from mindfulness. And to be honest, if this doesn’t convince you to start developing a mindfulness practice of your own, I don’t know what will.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Research into mindfulness has really picked up over the past few decades. Here are some of the benefits we are just beginning to discover:
One of the most obvious benefits from meditation is that it improves our attention. One study has shown that just 5 days of 20 minute training can show significant improvements in our ability to focus and concentrate. The fact that mindfulness meditation can improve our attention is one of the most well-documented benefits. And the practice of staying focused on our breath can build concentration that often spills over into many other activities.
Another interesting study showed that just 4 days of 20 minute training showed significant increases in cognitive functioning, especially memory and learning. Other related research indicates that meditation can help slow down Alzheimer’s and dementia. Some of this may in part be due to our increased attention, but it seems meditation also acts on other parts of the brain more directly related to learning and memory, such as increasing gray matter in the hippocampus.
Managing Stress and Anxiety
Meditation has also been shown to reduce gray matter in the amygdala, which is a part of the brain commonly associated with stress, anxiety, and emotional processing. This demonstrates why meditation does so well in relieving stress and increasing relaxation. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of The Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts, is one of the leading teachers and researchers in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Here you can find a wonderful lecture he gave to Google summarizing a lot of the research demonstrating how effective mindfulness meditation is for reducing stress and improving medical outcomes.
Improving Heart Rate and Blood Pressure
In light of meditation’s ability to reduce stress, it has also been reported to lower your blood pressure and heart rate. This particular study followed 200 participants for 5 years who were at a “high risk” for heart attacks and strokes. They found that those who practiced meditation regularly reduced their risk for heart attacks and strokes by almost 50%.
Mindful breathing has also been discovered to reduce pain, according to a recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience. After just four 20 minute mindfulness sessions, participants did better at reducing unpleasant sensations (such as 120 degrees of heat, a temperature that most people find painful) than those who did not receive mindfulness training. Researchers theorize that mindfulness trainees have an easier time keeping their focus directed toward their breathing and thereby ignoring the discomfort caused by the heat. It’s likely that mindfulness can show similar effects on other types of pain as well.
Surprisingly, mindfulness meditation is said to be on par with antidepressants in preventing depression relapse. According to researchers, mindfulness prevents excessive rumination (a common cause of depression) by teaching individuals how to reflect on thoughts and emotional states in a non-judgmental and non-attaching way. Instead of clinging to “negative” thoughts and feelings – and feeding into them – mindfulness teaches us to sit back and watch these emotions and thoughts without needing to overreact or feel guilty about how we feel. This makes it a lot easier to fully experience these passing thoughts and emotions, and then let them go.
Overcoming Fears of Death
Another recent study published earlier this year found that mindfulness can also ease fears and anxieties related to death. Mindful people tend to be more accepting of their limited time while alive. They also tend to be less dependent on fantasy-filled beliefs and desires for self-preservation or immortality. They understand that death is not the opposite of life, but a necessary part of it. Thus, they accept the reality of their demise, instead of being defensive.
Changing Bad Habits
There is a particular technique in mindfulness training that helps individuals overcome addictions and other bad habits. It’s called urge surfing, and it’s a popular tool in some psychotherapies to help individuals quit smoking or stop obsessive eating. The main goal of the meditation is to “ride out” your desire to do certain negative habits, but not act on them. Mindfulness teaches you that many of these desires are impermanent, and if we just sit back and watch them, it is very likely that they will subside and go away (without us necessarily needing to smoke another cigarette, or eat that slice of cake).
Changing Brain Structure
In addition to many of the benefits mentioned above, it has also been shown that 8 weeks of mindfulness training can cause long-term changes to our brain structure. While this isn’t necessarily a “benefit” in-and-of-itself, it is evidence for just how powerful mindfulness training can be. For more on this you can also check out my article Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity.
These are just about all of the main benefits I know of that are associated with mindfulness, but I’m sure there are countless others. Mindfulness can be such a fundamental skill to living that it truthfully affects just about all areas of our life.
Learn more about psychology and self-improvement in my new e-book The Science of Self Improvement (bonus meditation guide included).