If there was a free pill you could take daily that would make you happier, healthier, and permanently change your brain for the better, you’d be crazy not to take it, right?
Well, there’s something like that, but it’s not a pill. It’s a way of thinking. A mindset. A kinder, gentler, more awake and aware way of approaching life.
Very simply, mindfulness means paying full attention to what’s going on in the present moment, inside of yourself (thoughts, emotions, behaviors) and outside of yourself (your immediate environment.) In The Meaning of Mindfulness, I explain that:
Mindfulness is proving to be an effective mental health tool – better than medications in many studies – for reducing depression and anxiety that’s free and that you can use anytime anywhere.
However, contrary to some of the claims you’ve probably seen about mindfulness, it’s not a magic saber you whip out to banish the negativity bandits. It’s dedicated effort and work — at first. Over time, mindfulness simply becomes a tool in your mental health toolbox, a way of thinking – a healthier, happier way – and a manner in which you respond to and live life.
(For a full explanation of what mindfulness is, read here. For a full explanation of what mindfulness is not, read here.)
Mindfulness as a Mental Health Tool
Mindfulness is the first-line treatment for many mental health disorders.
Science has proven, beyond any doubt, that a steady practice of mindfulness induces real beneficial changes in the brain. Studies have shown mindfulness to significantly improve a variety of conditions, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Being mindful has also proven successful in preventing relapse of chronic depression and substance abuse.
A review of empirical studies, Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health, concluded that:
…there is a clear convergence of findings from correlational studies, clinical intervention studies, and laboratory-based, experimental studies of mindfulness—all of which suggest that mindfulness is positively associated with psychological health, and that training in mindfulness may bring about positive psychological effects. These effects ranged from increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, to improved regulation of behavior.
How Mindfulness Helps Depression and Anxiety
Using mindfulness to help cope with the negative emotions, behaviors, and thoughts that accompany depression and anxiety can be learned on your own or with professional guidance. Mindfulness counters many of the cognitive symptoms associated with the conditions, like distorted thinking, poor concentration, and negative thoughts.
Focusing on the here and now helps a person become aware of their anxiety and depression-producing thoughts and emotions, acknowledge them without judgment and realize they’re not accurate reflections of reality. Through practicing mindfulness, thoughts and emotions lose their power over your brain and life, and you can start to detach from them and not “go down the rabbit hole” with them.
Mindfulness is a way of learning to watch yourself think and consciously changing your patterns of thought, which resets your default mode of thinking over time.
3 Ways to Practice Mindfulness on Your Own
Come Into the Present Moment
Bring your mind into the present moment. You can focus your awareness on your physical surroundings or anchor your attention in your breath. When you intentionally direct your mind, it can’t ruminate, worry, or think negative thoughts.
There are many ways to ground yourself in your body in your physical environment. You can get as spiritual as you want here or keep it simple. I’m talking about simply paying attention to what’s happening in your current surroundings. For example:
- Notice what you see immediately in front of you.
- Can you pick out the individual sounds you hear?
- What is the temperature of the air around you?
- Feel your feet in your shoes and the pressure of them standing on the ground.
Focusing on your breath is also a very handy, helpful way to mindfully come into the present. Slow abdominal breathing helps you connect with your body and initiates the parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response. The relaxation response is the opposite of the anxious fight-or-flight reaction. It’s a physical state of calm, peacefulness which is the best resting state for health and happiness. You can learn mindful deep breathing here.
Meditation as a mental health tool is a way of learning to calm your mind.
A lot of people have the idea that meditation means doing nothing mentally and emptying the mind of all thought. That’s not true. It’s not about suppressing thought. Meditation isn’t about what you think or don’t think. It’s about learning to observe your thoughts and settle your mind.
In Three Easy Ways To Calm Your Mind And Improve Your Brain, I write:
Meditation is allowing thoughts to arise as they will, becoming aware of the thinking, observing it without attaching to or following it, letting it go, and returning to a state of mental calmness. Over time, your mind will become more settled and thought will slow down during a session. Because of a process known as familiarization, the more the mind is in contact with a mental quality, the quicker it can return to it. With repetition and consistency, your brain makes neuroplastic changes that strengthen the calm neuronal pathways so that they become the “go to” norm.
The brain benefits of meditation have been overwhelmingly validated by science. On a physical level, a person is learning to alter the way their brain functions by changing thought patterns. With repetition, these thinking habits permanently alter the brain’s form and function.
There is no “getting it right” in meditation. Trying to meditate is meditating. The goal in meditation is to observe your thoughts and redirect your attention. The brain benefits come from just doing it, not from doing it perfectly.
Reframe Negative Thoughts
Through mindfulness, a person can learn to observe their thoughts without automatically buying into them, challenge them, and choose to consciously reframe them. Thought reframing, which is really just applied mindfulness, involves learning to focus your attention and modify your thinking in beneficial ways that support and empower you. Again, with repetition, the process changes your brain physically and operationally through neuroplasticity.
In Four Steps To Take Control Of Your Mind And Change Your Brain, I explain the four steps involved in thought reframing:
- Relabel – Become aware of and identify deceptive brain messages and uncomfortable sensations. Consciously put a label on your experience as it’s happening.
- Reframe – Change your perception of the importance of your thoughts. Realize that they’re simply products of your brain that you don’t have to believe.
- Refocus – In the first two steps, you clear your cognitive field. Then, focus your attention on the moment in the direction you want to go and consciously do something constructive.
- Revalue – After the first three steps, the fourth step begins to happen almost automatically as the result of new thought patterns. You begin to see thoughts, urges, and impulses for what they are: sensations caused by deceptive brain messages that don’t benefit you.
Mindfulness as Part of Therapy for Depression and Anxiety
Mindfulness training is incorporated as part of professional therapy in what’s known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). MBCT teaches a person to acknowledge their feelings and actions and become aware of their thoughts about them. When anxiety, hopelessness, or negative thoughts prevail, MBCT trains a person to stay with and explore them rather than worry about, avoid, or deal with them in some other habitual, unhealthy way.
Research has shown MBCT effective for reducing depression and anxiety.Share this article!
I love the way you start this piece out, Debbie. Because mindfulness is such a powerful tool and it is FREE. Kind of crazy we don’t all use it. Thanks for sharing all these benefits with us.
So true Debbie…if there were a pill, we’d be crazy not to take it! And the challenge for most people, is changing habits they’ve acquired over the years. Habits of how they think. BUT there’s that huge payoff you speak of. That “first-line treatment for many mental health disorders.”
And I would add the opportunity to be less anxious and more relaxed as we flow through life. Great article.