Mindfulness & Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is an ancient tradition that has existed for thousands of years, and it is only over the past few decades that Western research has set its eyes on its astounding benefits. It consists of a moment-to-moment focus on the present whereby the participant pays attention to their bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts without being swept away by them. Simply, it is the process by which you focus on what is being felt in the moment without judgment or subjective interpretation (Kabat-Zinn, 2015). Throughout its subsequent research in multiple therapeutic fields, mindfulness meditation has demonstrated itself to be a fundamental practice for the human mind to thrive. In a world where the average individual becomes immersed in an ocean of information from a young age, it is vital to develop sufficient neural capacities to endure this endless stream of stimuli. More importantly, psychologists are beginning to reveal that the human brain is unable to cope with the constant stimulation emerging from the internet, social media, and other forms of information dispensing technologies (Swingle, 2016). Due to this, mental illness is on the rise. The constant stream of stimuli paired with the brain’s natural propensity to continuously latch onto novel thoughts and emotions is why mental illness and dysfunctional behaviors are so highly prevalent today (Keles et al., 2020).
There have been many therapeutic interventions aiming to mitigate the consequences of this phenomenon. Many of which consist of pharmacotherapeutic strategies involving the distribution of pharmaceutical pills and products. On the other hand, the scientific community has begun to unearth a new form of non-invasive treatment that has the potential to not only reduce but eradicate all of these problems: Mindfulness Meditation. Results into its benefits show that mindfulness not only acts as a preventive practice for reducing psychopathology, but it also enhances overall life functioning and wellbeing across multiple metrics. Over the following article, you will begin to understand, through science steeped in peer-reviewed research, the whole nature of mindfulness’ therapeutic effects and how it has the potential to change lives for the better.
Mindfulness: The Basics
Before diving into the more notable benefits of mindfulness meditation, it is important to highlight the foundational effects it can have on the brain. Essentially, the practice of mindfulness is done to cultivate a ‘mindful’ outlook on your external and internal environment. It does this by constructing a sense of mental stability that prevents your attention from being leveraged or influenced by distractors (Dunne, 2015). When this state of mind is achieved, research has demonstrated that the practitioner develops four critical cognitive abilities, which have been evidenced to enhance overall psychological functioning and wellbeing (Weilgosz et al., 2018; Santorelli et al., 2017). These include:
Meta-Awareness: Meta-awareness refers to one’s ability to monitor and supervise the contents of their mind without being directly involved in the underlying stream of thought. It essentially boils down to thinking about one’s thinking and being able to direct one’s attention through this awareness of thought (Schooler et al., 2011). In the case of mindfulness, meta-awareness allows the mind to observe the different states it is passing through, serving as a guide that can direct it to more purposeful states.
Present-centered Awareness: As its name suggests, this form of awareness sustains one’s focus and attention in the present moment without letting it become entangled in past or future event-oriented focus. Many pathological symptoms of depression and anxiety are rooted within past and future-oriented thoughts (Farb, 2015). In contrast, when attention is focused on the present moment, the mind recognizes past and future feelings as mere artifacts, meaning unrelated and ultimately irrelevant to the present moment.
Nonreactivity: This process refers to the ability to cognitively detach one’s attention from incoming internal stimuli. Effectively, it consists of suspending one’s standard evaluation, or reaction, to mental experiences. The cultivation of this ability is useful in managing the streams of thought that occur daily, but they are especially vital when dealing with aversive stimuli (e.g., anger) that contribute to negative outcomes. In other words, nonreactivity can be considered a cognitive form of “acceptance” (Lutz et al., 2015).
Dereification: Dereification consists of shifting one’s relationships with their thoughts and feelings. During the storm of inner experience, it is very easy to identify with each thought you produce and fall into the belief that they represent your Self. Mindfulness produces dereification using psychological distancing whereby the ego no longer attaches itself to the myriad of thoughts that appear on a consistent basis, as it can view them in a detached manner.
The Brain and Body On Mindfulness
Mindfulness and meditation produce such significant to our cognition as it directly affects our brain and physiology. In a 2011 study, researchers Mohan, Sharma, and Biklani (2011) demonstrated that mindfulness meditation enhances the relaxation response in the body. This directly mitigated the fight or flight response, characterized by the secretion of cortisol, the stress hormone. This is crucial for adaptive brain functioning as many studies have shown a direct correlation between stress and neurological insult (De Kloet, Joels & Holsboer, 2005). Moreover, the consistent practice of mindfulness meditation has been shown to decrease blood pressure, pain signals, and overall muscle tension within the body, leading to physiological homeostasis (Carlson, Speca, Patel, & Goodey, 2004; Eliopoulos, 2013; Freeman, 2008; Lane, 2007; NCCIH, 2015; Seaward, 2013; Shin, 2012; Trivieri & Anderson, 2002).
On a neurological level, mindfulness affects underlying brain structures by increasing cortical thickness in brain areas related to memory formation, focus, and executive function (Tang, Holzel & Posner, 2015). Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation contributes to the development of functional gray matter in the affected brain regions while also creating white matter volume between each area. Put simply, consistent meditation can help build connections between key areas of the brain which regulate processes such as aging, cognition, and emotional regulation (Brewer et al., 2011). Moreover, research indicates that active meditators possess the ability to shift their brain activity to different areas of the cortex (Allen, 2012). This is essential as many psychopathological symptoms stem from the overreliance on the stress-prone right frontal cortex and an under-reliance on its left-sided counterpart. Hence, those who can actively create this shift can protect their brain from the adverse effects of stress, mild depression, and anxiety.
Considering its ability to influence physiological and neurological markers, mindfulness meditation has been implicated within the treatment of neurobiologically rooted disorders such as trauma, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Compson, 2014; Cairncross & Miller, 2020). Standard treatment for these disorders requires pharmacotherapy as the symptoms stem from underlying neurological dysfunctions, as opposed to psychological dysfunctions. Hence, the capacity for mindfulness to influence cortical matter within and in-between brain regions demonstrates that it can treat neurobiologically based disorders to a certain degree.
Mindfulness: A Tool to Protect and Enrich
Over the previous decades, mindfulness and meditation research has been centered around its protective mechanisms on problems such as mental illness or neurodegeneration. However, new research in the field of self-development and positive psychology has emerged to show how mindfulness can also act as a tool to significantly enrich one’s life in physical, emotional, and spiritual domains (Lazaridou & Pentaris, 2016). Indeed, mindfulness demonstrates high rates of efficiency for treating clinical disorders such as depression, chronic pain, and anxiety, but it also possesses the ability to imbue meaning, empathy, and compassion within the individual. Considering this, we are clearly moving beyond the domain of treatment and entering areas of self and spiritual development.
Firstly, mindfulness is evidenced to be a prime driver of enacting permanent behavior change (Schuman-Oliver et al., 2020). This is important considering the inclination of most people to remain stagnant within dysfunctional behavior patterns that contribute to various self-esteem and insecurity issues. Mindfulness engenders permanent behavior change due to its ability to produce mindful self-regulation within the practitioner. Essentially, this refers to the ability to effectively regulate your cognition, emotions, behaviors, and attention to respond to internal and external demands (Carver & Scheier, 2001). Furthermore, mindfulness equally produces behavior change as it overrides neural fear conditioning, which is the root of all avoidant behaviors (Schuman-Oliver et al., 2020). This subsequently enhances the ability to extinguish unhelpful habits leading to healthier counterparts being established within one’s life and routine.
Second, mindfulness is a potent mechanism for developing compassion while simultaneously reversing dark personality traits. Although most of us are not highly machiavellian or narcissistic, we still possess a small degree of dark personality traits expressed through envy, jealousy, or insecurity (Raihani & Deutchman, 2017). Accordingly, studies show that mindfulness and meditation are significant mediators of these dark personality traits and reduce their expression in thought and behavior (Lisa & Valachova, 2021). Conversely, mindfulness not only reduces the expression of these traits but also enhances one’s predisposition to be more compassionate. One of the primary tenets of mindfulness is the adoption of non-judgmental and non-identifying attitudes towards thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Moreover, mindfulness contributes to a deeper understanding of one’s own suffering, which extends to the suffering of others. As a result, compassion and kindness arise naturally with mindfulness (Lisa & Valachova, 2021).
Lastly, research shows that mindfulness can establish meaning within one’s life (Chu & Mak, 2019). Meaning is considered to be the antidote for many issues that are present in modern-day life. A lack of meaning is associated with poor life satisfaction, depression, and a lack of motivation to grow and improve (Park, Park & Peterson, 2010). According to ancient Buddhist practices, in which mindfulness was drawn, the persistent cultivation of a mindful state of mind can induce meaning in multiple ways. Firstly, mindfulness increases acceptance and compassion (Raab, 2014). These processes are vital to confronting adverse inner experiences that obstruct many people's path to meaning. With an acceptance of our current state, paired with a heightened sense of self-awareness, practitioners can achieve high periods of introspection while practicing mindfulness, which contributes to finding meaning. Second, mindfulness produces a positive attentional bias, prompting the practitioner to attend to the positive aspect of any experience (Garland et al., 2017). Akin to gratitude, the ability to see the positive as opposed to the negative is related to a higher sense of meaning, according to research (Chu & Mak, 2019).
The Bottom Line
Mindfulness is a powerful tool that can be applied as a protective mechanism or as a source of spiritual growth in your life. The simple act of quieting the mind and allowing your thoughts and feelings to flow through it without judgment can produce profound impacts that can possibly change your life for the better. This practice is evidence-based with extensive research as of today and has a successful track record of around 2500 years of consistent practice. Keep in mind that research on mindfulness is far from over; new studies are being published monthly that outline how mindfulness can impact the general population. To receive all of the reported benefits, all you have to do is start by sitting down in your home one evening, close your eyes and empty your mind. Once you start understanding how this practice can change your internal experience, seek our professionals who can compound your benefits and help you retain them permanently.
‘‘Mindfulness is a total clarity and presence of mind, actively passive, wherein events come and go like reflections in a mirror; nothing is reflected except what is.” Allan Watts (1957)
It's not nutella.... but close!
Practicing meditation once or twice a day for 20–30 minutes can produce measurable metabolic effects that are exactly the opposite of the body's fight or flight response. In their study on the effects of meditation on stress, Mohan, Sharma, and Bijlani (2011) demonstrated that it produced a relaxation response in adults who had practiced meditation as well as in adults who had never practiced meditation before the study.
Other physiological changes that occur with regular meditation practice include the following (Carlson, Speca, Patel, & Goodey, 2004; Eliopoulos, 2013; Freeman, 2008; Lane, 2007; NCCIH, 2015; Seaward, 2013; Shin, 2012; Trivieri & Anderson, 2002):
Improved airflow to the lungs
Increased energy level
Decreased catecholamine levels
Decreased cortisol (a major stress hormone)
Increased skin resistance (due to decreased anxiety and perspiration)
Decreased heart and respiration rates
Decreased blood pressure
Decreased muscle tension
Increased alpha waves (due to increased relaxation)
Decreased pain and pain perception
Neuroscientists have found that meditators mentally shift their brain activity to different areas of the cortex. In other words, brain waves in the stress-prone right frontal cortex move to the calmer left frontal cortex. This mental shift decreases the negative effects of stress, mild depression, fear, and anxiety (Allen, 2012).
Improved mental and emotional health
Reduced perception of stress
Reduced anxiety and depression
Increased degree of self-actualization
Increased locus of control
Decreased tendency to worry
Improved concentration and focus
Enhanced feelings of happiness
Increased sense of peace and well-being
Increased awareness and spiritual calm
Decreased psychological "rumination"
Increased ability to regulate behavior
Increased resilience and adaptability
The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
Practicing mindfulness has been shown to bring a variety of physical, psychological, and social benefits (Kabat-Zinn, 2012):
Supports the immune system and increases its ability to prevent infection and illness
Increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress
Increases density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy
Fosters compassion, empathy, and altruism by increasing activity in neural networks involved in the understanding other people
Three steps to meditate mindfully:
Sit comfortable, with your back upright.
Focus your full attention on the feeling of your breath coming in and going out.
Bring your attention back to your breath. You don’t have to clear your mind; getting lost and coming back is the whole game.
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