6 Benefits of Mindfulness

Lots of people recommend mindfulness these days but is it effective? Thousands of research studies suggest that mindfulness can be helpful for a range of issues including chronic pain, stress, anxiety and depression. But how reliable are these claims? As a trained teacher of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), I have to admit that even I am sometimes sceptical about some of the claims made for mindfulness. There is a certain amount of hype about its benefits and this is sometimes fuelled by people who are too eager to sell it as a commodity. The media too, in search of a good news story sometimes over-sell the benefits of mindfulness as if it was a panacea for all ills.

There are a number of factors that will determine whether mindfulness can improve physical and mental wellbeing. It is really important that people wishing to learn mindfulness should attend a mindfulness class from a suitably qualified teacher if at all possible. Most of the research into the benefits of mindfulness is based on the effects on participants who completed an 8-week MBSR or MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) course. So the claims made for mindfulness might not necessarily be true for other courses which simply involve learning mindfulness meditation on its own. Both the MBSR and MBCT courses include not only training in how to meditate but also provide insights into how stress affects the body, and how our thinking can sometimes make us unhappy.

Significantly, courses such as MBSR and MBCT provide a particular reflective and supportive environment where participants develop new insights into how they are relating to themselves and their experience. In doing so, they are encouraged to be more proactive in looking after their own wellbeing while being sensitive to the wellbeing of others. Positive results from doing a course depend on the skill and insight of the teacher, and the motivation of the participant. A key factor is the willingness to practice mindfulness meditation on a regular basis so that new mental habits are developed that promote greater wellbeing. Following are 6 benefits of mindfulness that we can confidently say are supported by research evidence:

1
Mindfulness helps to reduce stress.

Man sitting on tree stump in forest with head in hand

We gradually become less reactive and respond more calmly and wisely to stressful situations. This doesn’t mean that we never get upset. But there is a greater likelihood that we get upset less often about things. As we continue to practice we will gradually notice that we recover our equilibrium from stressful situations more quickly. In that sense mindfulness can build resilience.

2
Mindfulness can be an effective treatment for depression.

Woman upset looking out of a rainy window

Some studies have shown that mindfulness is at least as effective as anti-depressants and sometimes more so. However, not everyone who gets depressed improves after a course in mindfulness. In many cases, people with a clinical diagnosis of depression may need psychotherapy and possibly also anti-depressant medication. A combination of any of these with mindfulness may be helpful. Those with depression are best advised to consult their doctor to discuss whether mindfulness might be a useful treatment option.

3
Mindfulness helps to reduce anxiety.

There is currently less hard evidence that supports this view but lots of people who experience anxiety report either that they have less anxiety or that they can manage it better than before practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness doesn’t try to treat anxiety directly, but the meditation practices are often experienced as calming. With greater insight into how our thought patterns might be fuelling our anxiety, many people use mindfulness awareness to soothe the tendency of the mind to worry or be on a continual state of high alert. At the very least, mindfulness helps people to better tolerate the experience of being anxious and to cope more skillfully in anxiety provoking situations.

4
Mindfulness supports better pain management.

Very few would claim that mindfulness can directly cure any physical condition. But many sufferers of chronic pain report that they experience less discomfort and emotional distress about their pain condition. Mindfulness course participants learn to train their attention in ways that can, not only focus on the physical pain but also on other aspects of experience where there is no pain. They also learn to sit with pain and breathe into it rather than tensing up the body and developing mental resistance to it. Mindfulness trains the mind to hold a balanced awareness even in the face of pain, physical or otherwise. Some patients with chronic conditions are sometimes able to reduce or dispense with their pain medication. For others, medication and mindfulness along with other approaches can all help and this is best done in consultation with a medical practitioner.

5
Mindfulness improves concentration.

There is now a growing amount of research findings that suggest that mindfulness improves the ability to pay attention. Paying attention and the ability to sustain it and remain focused are all elements that promote better concentration. A number of studies show that people with ADD or ADHD can experience improvements in concentration through the practice of mindfulness. But with the increasing distractibility that all of us are prone to because of our contact with digital technology and social media, everyone can benefit from improved concentration. Given that there is a growing understanding of the link between attentional difficulties and poor mental health, mindfulness training is particularly relevant in our times.

6
Mindfulness promotes increased empathy and compassion for self and others.

There is a tendency for a lot of people to think of mindfulness simply as a technique but it is much more about attitudes. Mindfulness practice trains people to pay attention to how they are feeling on the inside and to recognise when there is distress. It then encourages us to be accepting of our feelings and to relate to ourselves and our experience like we might to a good friend who is suffering. Once we become sensitised to our own pain and learn ways to compassionately support ourselves, we naturally tend to be more empathic of others and to relate to them with less judgement and with greater compassion.

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Dominic Cogan

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