Are you looking for a way to reduce anxiety and depression, protect brain health, and enjoy greater overall psychological and physical health? One approach which you can try right now is mindfulness. This simple meditation can be carried out in a matter of minutes, and can easily be incorporated into any person’s day-to-day routine.
But what exactly is mindfulness?
Is there really any evidence that it works, or is it just a lot of hype? How do you practice mindfulness if you are a total beginner? Are there different techniques, or just one “right” way to do it? In this article, I will answer all of these questions in depth. That way you will be ready to get started with your own mindfulness practice!
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
If you’re looking for a definition of mindfulness in plain English, here is the best one I can give you:
Mindfulness is simply the practice of bringing your awareness to the present moment.
There are more detailed and specific definitions out there, but I like this one best because it is broader in scope and provides you with more freedom to interpret what that means for you within your individual framework.
Another way to think of it is this. You are simply being mindful of the present. You are not allowing your awareness to drift without a tether. When your thoughts start to wander, you bring them back to the moment.
Being mindful is not the same thing as trying to totally empty your mind of thoughts. In fact, your thoughts and emotions are just more things to be aware of in the present. But you want to observe them non-judgmentally from the “outside,” rather than inhabiting the stories they tell you from the “inside.”
This is quite different from the way most of us function on an everyday basis. We easily get pulled into flights of fancy, losing ourselves in memories of the past or daydreams (or fears) about the future. Oftentimes, we lose some of our awareness of the present when this happens.
With mindfulness, your goal is to stay in the present when these thoughts appear, to remain fully in contact with your body and surroundings.
Mindfulness is also not the same as “doing nothing.” You can just sit and breathe and be mindful of your breathing. But you can also walk mindfully, eat mindfully, and so on. It is up to you to choose a practice which suits you.
Does Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Work?
Let’s Check Out the Science
Mindfulness is adapted from Buddhist practices which go back centuries, particularly one called Vipassana. But saying that something has been practiced for hundreds of years is not the same thing as proving that it works. So does mindfulness have any real, measurable benefits? Let’s take a look at what science has to say.
Benefits of Mindfulness
- Treat anxiety. Mindfulness for anxiety has receive quite a bit of research, and may be effective for reducing symptoms for patients who suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Researchers have also found that mindfulness may be helpful in treating chronic shyness and social anxiety.
- Treat depression. Along with helping to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, mindfulness has also been demonstrated in numerous studies to help reduce symptoms of depression.
- Reduce stress. Even if you do not suffer from anxiety or depression, the day-to-day stress of life can be overwhelming. Mindfulness for stress reduction has been studied in a variety of settings, particularly universities. Researchers have found it to be effective in reducing the negative effects of daily hassles.
- Fight addiction. Mindfulness is sometimes used in addiction recovery programs to help prevent relapses and assist recovering addicts in deriving more joy and meaning from everyday life. Sometimes mindfulness is used in conjunction with yoga for this and other purposes.
- Improve behavioral control in OCD. In OCD, obsessive thoughts are partly involuntary, and cannot be entirely eliminated or controlled—but compulsive behaviors can be reined in. Here is a case study on a woman who was able to do just that through mindfulness meditation.
- Provide coping mechanisms for those with ASD. Depression, anxiety, and aggressiveness are issues which are common among autistic persons. Studies have shown that mindfulness can help both children and adults with ASD to manage these psychological difficulties.
- Cope with chronic pain. Some studies have shown that mindfulness meditation has benefits for patients suffering from chronic pain.
- Treat PTSD. Research also points toward mindfulness as a useful treatment for PTSD and associated symptoms of depression.
If you search through scholarly articles, you will find plenty of other scientific research studies which support the use of mindfulness for a variety of practical applications.
It is also worth mentioning that stress, anxiety, and depression do have long-term implications for overall health. Chronic stress can increase your risk for metabolic syndrome and other serious health disorders which affect both body and mind.
So the benefits of practicing mindfulness may go far beyond regulating mood. Our bodies and minds are connected, and our thoughts and emotions do impact our physical well-being.
Beginner Mindfulness Techniques 101
So how can you start practicing mindfulness right now? There are so many approaches you can take. Here are some popular techniques recommended for beginners.
Focus On Your Breathing
One of the most popular mindfulness practices is to sit on the floor or on a chair, close your eyes, and then focus your attention on your breathing.
Note that this is not about controlling your breaths. You just breathe naturally like you always do, but stay focused on the sensation.
If you want to control your breaths, there is really no reason not to—just know that it is not required. You may find though that it gives you something to focus on which is more “active” and thus easier to engage with. If so, go for it.
Another idea is to go for a walk or practice yoga, tai chi, dance, or any other physical activity that you find engaging.
As with the breathing, bring your focus to the physical sensations of what you are doing.
There is a famous meditation where you mindfully eat a raisin, focusing on the taste, texture, and other aspects of the raisin-eating experience (if you are curious, this meditation was apparently first described by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the University of Massachusetts Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program).
Food is a great tool for mindfulness meditation because it engages all of the senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and even hearing.
Just Pick Something in the Present and Focus On It
If you try one of the ideas above and your mind still wanders a whole lot, just find something else. Every person is different, and if you want to stay engaged with the present, there is always a way—but you need to find something that disrupts your wandering thoughts and engages your focus.
You are not the same as every other person, so what compels you to be in the moment may also differ. That is perfectly all right. Experiment with different techniques until you start seeing results.
How Long Do You Need to Meditate?
There is no time requirement. A lot of practitioners advise around 10 minutes a day to start with.
I actually recommend forgetting about time altogether. If you are fixated on time, by definition you will be focusing on something other than the present moment (you are instead focusing on the future, i.e. “Am I done yet? What if I don’t succeed within 10 minutes?”).
Let go of time. Instead, make it your goal to achieve if only for a fraction of a second a sense of really being in the moment. Maybe you will manage it within a couple minutes. Maybe it will take you half an hour. Maybe you won’t achieve it at all today. That is okay. The effort and intent will still have a positive effect.
Mindfulness Tips and Tricks
- Re-prioritize. If you are constantly thinking, “Man, I need to get this meditation done so I can get on to everything I need to do today,” you will have a really hard time staying in the present. Shift your mental priorities. Make meditation important to you.
- Let effort matter more than success. If you are fixated on “succeeding,” you will sabotage your meditation, because you will essentially give yourself performance anxiety. It is just another way you will end up constantly going, “Am I there yet?” instead of just being there. So let go of your expectations. If you show up each day to try your best, you are doing enough. You build a lot of discipline this way.
- Try not to get caught up in infinite loops. You might be meditating and suddenly start thinking about your taxes. Then you go, “Wait, I am thinking about my taxes!” This is followed by, “Oh no, now I’m thinking about thinking about taxes!” Then you think, “That was a judgment! Wait … now I am judging my judgment!” This happens a lot. Just accept it and don’t worry about it. This is just what your brain does. You cannot control all of your thoughts. Thankfully, you do not have to. Let your brain do what it does while you meditate (mind and brain are different!).
- Try incorporating mindfulness throughout your day. You do not necessarily need to set aside 10-30 minutes a day to meditate. Just do it interspersed through the day. Focus on your eating. Focus on brushing your teeth. This works great for a lot of folks.
- Engage with something you actually like. It is much easier to meditate effectively if you enjoy what you are doing. If you hate sitting and love yoga, then do yoga.
- Do not judge your “failures.” You will get distracted from the present while meditating. Don’t get down on yourself about it, or you will just “stick” to those negative thoughts. Remember, if you are making an honest effort, you are doing enough. That is the only “success” that matters.
- Break the rules. Like some aspects of mindfulness meditation but find others don’t work for you? Change it up. It is your practice (see below).
Is Mindfulness Right for Everyone?
The vast body of research demonstrates that for the vast majority of participants, mindfulness is a positive and beneficial practice. There are exceptions, however. There are reports that in some cases, mindfulness can trigger panic attacks, dissociative episodes, and other unpleasant side effects.
I can actually testify to this because that is to some extent the case with me. I experience derealization on regular basis. While to some extent I am used to it, it can trigger panic attacks, and mindfulness meditation can trigger episodes if I do it by the book.
Doing it by the book also fails for me because of my OCD. Unless I am very actively engaged in a deliberate stream of thought, I will have a constant deluge of looping, branching, and compulsive thoughts.
Despite this, I meditate daily. To succeed, I’ve made a couple of modifications to mindfulness which work for me:
- I focus on thought, but I speak aloud. Usually I narrate an elaborate description of something ordinary in my physical surroundings. This bridges me to the present, concrete moment while providing a disruptive thought to cut through my OCD static.
- Doing the above also cuts through my brain’s tendency to dissociate through hyper-focus. While I am focused, the thing I am focused on is a stream of thought. This is ever-changing, ever-evolving, so I don’t go into the “abstract” like I do with something repetitious (like breathing).
- I actually do make judgments. I do this because I find that “refining” a particular thought and expressing it as best I can is itself meditative and focusing.
Hopefully this example serves to illustrate just how adaptable mindfulness meditation is and gets the point across that there are no set rules. Just find something that works for you and stick with it.
Conclusion: Mindfulness Can Be a Beneficial Practice to Add to Your Life
Coping with everyday life can be a major challenge for anyone, but it can be especially trying if you suffer from anxiety, depression, or another mood disorder. With mindfulness meditation, you can reduce your symptoms and gradually develop more awareness and control over your mind and behavior. The science is there. Just take a few minutes a day to be in the present, and see how your life transforms!