So far in this series, we’ve explored the ways mental health is directly impacted by physical and nutritional habits. However, our mental health is also affected by the ways we manage stress and anxiety coming from this; one way to do this is to promote mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a mental state in which you can be fully engaged in the present moment, and quite often, this is achieved through the practice of meditation. With a regular focus on mindfulness, we can handle any stress we encounter because we can think objectively about each situation and choose the appropriate course of action quickly. But without mindfulness, stress can linger and have an increasingly bigger impact on our lives. It can start as small as negative thoughts in the back of your mind and, if not addressed through a regular mindfulness practice, those thoughts can grow into something more detrimental like anxiety or depression. Thus, an ongoing focus on mindfulness gives us an effective way to not only manage stress but also maintain mental health and protect our general well-being.
The effects of mindfulness
A 2014 study about meditation programs effectively demonstrates the connection between mindfulness and mental health. In the study, researchers reviewed 41 different trials involving nearly 3,000 participants. In each trial, a mindful meditation practice reduced feelings of depression, anxiety, and physical pain. And this study is just one of an expanding body of research studies that have reached the same conclusion.
Just a few minutes of daily mindful meditation can produce notable mental health improvements:
Ways to be more mindful
Practicing mindfulness requires consistency—daily meditation sessions of at least 15 minutes. However, carving out space in your schedule, and protecting that space, can be difficult. To get started, there are a few steps you can take:
But most important, just get started. You can do it right now—sit up straight, set a gentle alarm for 5 minutes, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back. Now, stop reading and start meditating. You’re one step closer to a calmer state of being.
Background information: Mindfulness and your brain
Though the effects of mindfulness may seem more subjective, it has measurable effects on your brain.
A regular mindfulness practice can decrease anxiety by breaking the connection between two key areas: your Me Center and your Fear Center. Your Me Center, the medial prefrontal cortex, is where you process information in relation to your feelings and experiences. Your Fear Center, the amygdala, governs your body’s “fight or flight” response. Without mindfulness, your Me Center automatically interprets new bodily sensations as negative and decides whether to fight or flee. But through mindfulness, your Me Center stops connecting new sensations and experiences with fear, and gives you the opportunity to enjoy them.
Additionally, a regular mindfulness practice can improve your objectivity, by increasing the connection between your Assessment Center and insula. Your Assessment Center, the lateral prefrontal cortex, is what allows you to see things in a balanced way. Your insula controls your gut feelings and bodily sensations. Without mindfulness, you’re more inclined to view gut feelings and bodily sensations in a negative way. But with increased mindfulness, you can actually stop to think about what they mean before making a decision.
And lastly, mindfulness strengthens your sense of empathy. Your Me Center is split into two parts, one that processes information related to you and people like you and another that process info regarding people who are unlike you. Mindfulness builds the connection between the insula and the part of your Me Center that handles info about people unlike you. Without mindfulness, your brain would automatically associate fear and negativity with people who are different. But with mindfulness, this automatic response is suppressed, giving you the ability to consider others’ points of view.
Psychology Today’s Rebecca Gladding, M.D. covers these connections and brain functions in great detail in the 2013 piece, “This Is Your Brain on Meditation”.