Mindfulness has become sort of a catchall term for general self-help advice that focuses on using different practices to attune better to your mind and actions with the hopes of decreasing stress or associated symptoms. Take time to meditate in the morning. Pay attention to your food when you’re eating. Do a gratitude practice every night. Self-care your stress away. It all sounds good in theory, and certainly won’t do you any harm, but what does the term mindfulness really encompass, and is it really something that could change your life? Or it is just another fad and buzzword in the self-improvement culture of today?
As a therapist, I frequently encourage different types of mindfulness practices to encourage my clients to be intentional about their own lives. Attuning to our bodies and our minds and our habits is an important part of both gaining control over our lives as well as our mentality. I often work with people who have had something terrible, or heartbreaking, or unexpected happen to them, and they are struggling for a sense of control. In those times I am often reminded that sometimes the only thing you have control over is your mentality. Sometimes I get pushback from people who don’t necessarily believe that their mentality is within their own power. Their thoughts are stuck in places that leave them thinking:
- How can I help the way I feel?
- What I believe is what I believe, there’s no changing it.
- How can changing my mentality change my circumstances?
- Thinking about my mentality doesn’t change the problems I’m facing.
I can understand why it might sound like a load of new age fluff when people start talking about mindfulness. We have become accustomed to solutions that start and end with well-defined explanations and prescriptions. We like to be able to have a blood test tell us exactly what’s wrong and what treatment is needed to fix the issue. Unfortunately, our minds can be even more mysterious than our bodies are, at least in this day and age. The good news is that our minds are also a lot more powerful than we might believe, and that means that we can use our mentality to improve our overall sense of wellbeing.
I wanted to find out what we really know about mindfulness, and what the evidence says about whether or not it works. Researchers have been studying mindfulness based practices for over 30 years now, and studies have investigated mindfulness as a treatment for conditions such as addiction, trauma recovery, stress, chronic pain, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and more. There was no shortage of research to comb through devoted to mindfulness and it’s various applications, but the results were pretty consistent. Of course, with large bodies of research on a topic as broad as mindfulness, there are going to be variations in the results that studies present. I found the results optimistic, though. There is consistent evidence that when people are introduced to mindfulness based practices as a way to improve symptoms related to various stressors, they report good outcomes when they apply that knowledge.
Because mindfulness practices can be broad in terms of the actual strategies they refer to, here’s a few ideas about what people are referring to when they use that term:
- Deep-breathing practices
- Meditation (guided or self)
- Attuning to senses
- Intentional gratitude practices
- Night-time de-stressing rituals
- Conscious attention to mentality
- Intentional eating practices
Much of the research out there on mindfulness focuses on using one or more of these practices in a specific setting with a specific group of people. So the ways in which this area has been studied lends itself to a lot of different outcomes for a lot of different kinds of people with different kinds of problems. Nevertheless, I found a lot of examples of some really great ways that mindfulness practices are having a positive impact on people.
A study on mindfulness and addiction published this year found that mindfulness based interventions (MBIs) had a significant effect on cravings and substance misuse in treatment for addictions. This is a great example of how mindfulness practices can function as an auxiliary treatment for people. The goal of a mindfulness practices is not necessarily to serve as a replacement for other therapies, but it can be a good asset to use in addition to other treatment, and can function as a sort of enhancer. It may just give people an extra boost when they are seeking help for addictions or other mental health conditions.
Another encouraging example includes this study from PLOS One, which found that over a 6 year period in which medical and psychology students were introduced to mindfulness practices, the students reported significant increases in measures of their wellbeing. This is especially important given the high rates of mental distress, burnout, and suicide amongst medical professionals. As a person in a caregiving profession myself, I know how important it is to maintain a healthy mentality and how overwhelming the stress can get. It’s good to know more evidence is showing how important it is for caregivers to be given the resources and support to incorporate these practices themselves.
Another study from the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health found more evidence that introducing mindfulness in the workplace decreased burnout and reduced stress. This research supports my personal belief that employers should do more to help mitigate stress in the workplace and support the health of their employees by taking it upon themselves to bring stress reduction into the workplace environment. Not only do I believe this will improve employee health and help workers be happier in their work environments, I think it will make workplaces more efficient as well.
There is a lot more research out there on the topic, which I will be working on delving into more this month. However, these studies are a few examples of the research support out there for bringing mindfulness practices into our lives. Our lives have gotten so much more harried and complicated, and sometimes our choices seem out of our control. That’s why mindfulness is helpful in bringing a sense of focus and calm to your mentality, so that you feel more capable of handling whatever life happens to be throwing at you at the moment.
Mindfulness alone cannot solve every problem that you may have, but becoming more intentional about taking care of your mind and staying tuned in to how your mentality impacts your overall mood could help you stick to your goals and keep negativity at bay.