It is hard to believe that something so beautiful in its simplicity could be so powerful, but that’s exactly what mindfulness is, and now science can’t stop talking about it. Mindfulness is an ancient art and up until relatively recently, it has managed to escape the research spotlight. That’s probably not too surprising – The research is growing like crazy and though there’s still a lot we don’t know, one of the things we do know is that mindfulness has a profound capacity to heal and strengthen the brain against anxiety.
Research that analyzed 19 separate mindfulness/anxiety studies found that mindfulness was ‘associated with robust and substantial reductions in symptoms of anxiety.’ In fact, mindfulness was found to be as effective for anxiety as cognitive behavior therapy – one of the most popular treatments for anxiety.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a process that leads to a mental state characterized by nonjudgmental awareness of the present experiences, such as sensations, thoughts, bodily states, and the environment. It enables us to distance ourselves from our thoughts and feelings without labeling them as good or bad.
How Does Mindfulness Work?
By focusing our attention on the present moment, mindfulness counteracts rumination and worrying. Worrying about the future (e.g. I better remember to pay those bills and clean my house this weekend) and ruminating about the past (e.g., I should have done this rather than that) are generally maladaptive thinking processes. Of course, it is important to learn from our past and plan ahead for the future; however, when we spend too much time outside of the present moment, we can get depressed and anxious. In such cases, mindfulness can be an important tool for helping us to better focus on the present moment.
Research has shown that mindfulness helps us reduce anxiety and depression. Mindfulness teaches us how to respond to stress with awareness of what is happening in the present moment, rather than simply acting instinctively, unaware of what emotions or motives may be driving that decision. By teaching awareness for one's physical and mental state in the moment, mindfulness allows for more adaptive reactions to difficult situations.
Mindfulness works through a number of ways.
It encourages us to open up and accept our emotions. As a result we are better able to identify, experience, and process our emotions. Mindfulness also encourages us to see things from different perspectives. For example, if your spouse snaps at you, you might blame yourself and worry that you've done something to upset him/her. If you are able to distance yourself from your immediate response of being hurt, you might remember that your spouse mentioned a hard day at work, and perhaps they snapped at you because they're tired and stressed out. This new interpretation could alleviate some of your worry and negative feelings. The practice of mindfulness has been shown to benefit the following areas:
There are many practices that include mindfulness trainings, such as tai chi, yoga, and zen. There are many styles for each of these activities, so it is worthwhile to experiment with different practices until you find one that suits you. As you become more mindful, you will also notice that you will become more centered, happier, and less depressed and this in turn has a direct positive effect on your anxiety.
How to be Mindful Right NowFocus on your breath for a few minutes. Feel your chest rise and fall, notice the sensation of the breath as it enters and exits your nose. When your mind wanders, simply return your attention to the breath. Focus on the present moment: the here and now. Notice this very moment; it feels good to be alive, right now.
If you don't immediately feel a complete release of anxiety, remember: most of the benefits of mindfulness require consistent practice. While some changes bolster against anxiety even after one single yoga class, most benefits require several weeks, months, and even years to create a noticeable change. And, like any skill, you will need to continue to practice mindfulness after you start to maintain the improvements.
Interested in participating in a research treatment study for anxiety? Visit gatestudy.org for more information.