What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is defined as being consciously aware of the present moment. It is a mental state that is achieved when you focus on what is happening right now, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your own thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations at that moment.
There has been much hype around mindfulness practices and interventions in recent years, both in the media and in the scientific community. Mindfulness has been reported to be effective for a variety of problems and conditions, especially emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Does it work?
So does mindfulness practice live up to the hype? Well, that depends. If you believed mindfulness to be the end-all and be-all solution to emotional problems, you might be disappointed. Mindfulness has been proven to be very effective in treating emotional disorders, but it is far from being a panacea. Although it might prove to be a very helpful tool in your anti-anxiety kit, you might find that you need other forms of help, too, to conquer your anxiety completely.
Let me say, though, that many people have successfully treated anxiety disorders with mindfulness practices alone. But what works for one person seldom works equally well for everyone.
Still, if you suffer from anxiety, I consider mindfulness to be an invaluable skill. And perhaps even a necessary one if you want to eventually conquer your anxiety once and for all.
Why does it work?
On the surface, one of the ways mindfulness seems to work is because it helps us to focus our attention on the present moment. The mind gets distracted often during mindful exercises, but each time we notice the mind drift away from the moment, we gently bring it back. Each time this happens, we are exercising our ability to control our attention. We learn to notice when we are “stuck in our heads” and bring our attention to the moment. This is especially helpful for anxious individuals who often have trouble ruminating on anxious thoughts and find it extremely difficult to break out of the worry cycle.
Secondly, when we practice being mindful, we exercise our ability to notice our anxious thoughts and feelings and accept them without judgment. Over time we develop the ability to notice them more objectively, without identifying with them or assuming them to be true. This is a part of an ability called “decentering” which I cover more thoroughly in another article. This can be extremely useful in taking the sting out of anxiety.
Mindfulness practice also has been shown in multiple studies, through the use of brain imaging technology, to reduce activity in areas of the brain associated with rumination and anxiety and increase activity (and even physically increase the size) in areas associated with emotion regulation.
I will discuss these brain areas more in-depth in a future article, for those interested. But just to briefly name a few of them, mindfulness has been shown to increase activity in the left Prefrontal Cortex, an area associated with increased positive emotions and greater regulation of negative emotions. Mindfulness increases activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, an area that governs thinking and emotions and is an area believed to greatly influence a decrease in anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness has been shown to strengthen a connection in the brain known as the “Uncinate Fasciculus” which is thought to be involved in “turning down” the volume on emotions such as fear and anxiety. Mindfulness decreases activity in the brain's right Prefrontal Cortex, which is associated with feeling negative emotions. And mindfulness decreases activity in the Amygdala, an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain thought to be the place where anxiety and fear stem from.
There are many more areas in the brain that are known to be involved, and many other reasons why mindfulness is thought to be so effective. But the evidence is there. Mindfulness can be a great tool in “anxiety-proofing” your brain over time. It is a wonderful weapon to have in your arsenal.
An exercise in mindfulness
A simple internet search will give you a variety of different mindfulness exercises and suggestions. But here I will give you one of the oldest and most basic beginner mindfulness exercises. Mindfulness of the breath:
- Sit in a comfortable position and relax any tension you may notice in your body as best you can.
- Begin to become aware of the fact that you are breathing. Don’t try to change the rate of your breath or anything like that. Just notice it. And if it changes, that’s okay, notice that too. Notice the in-breath, either the feeling of the breath coming into your nostrils, of the air filling up your belly and gently stretching it. And then notice the out-breath, and how it feels as well. Perhaps you may notice the cool air coming into your nostrils, and notice the slightly warmer air leave them on the out-breath. Be as aware and as mindful as you can be.
- Soon, you will become distracted. This is not something to become irritated about but is actually an important part of the practice. As soon as you have noticed your mind has wondered, you are back in the present moment. Simply label the thought as “thinking” or “wandering” and kindly and gently bring your attention back to the sensation of breathing. This is a step that will be repeated again and again throughout the practice and is actually thought to be where much of the benefits of the practice are obtained. Note, too, that it is very common to worry “what if I am not doing this practice correctly?” You want to treat this thought just like any other. Try not to identify it, but watch it pass by like the rest. Return your attention back to the practice of being in the moment.
- After 5-20 minutes or so, you may bring your practice to a close. And for the next few minutes, try as best you can to bring that sense of mindfulness to your daily activities. And if possible, try to do the exercise every day, once or twice a day. Or at least 4 times a week.
It takes time to notice the benefits, and you may sometimes get frustrated during the practice. You may try to relax and simply notice the frustration, or you can allow yourself to stop and return to the practice at a later time. If you ever find yourself lacking the motivation to practice, make a list of the reported benefits of becoming a more mindful person and read these to yourself regularly to motivate you to do the exercises. Not least of which is greatly reduced anxiety.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Jackie Jones