Has anyone ever told you to “Just breathe” when anxious or upset? Chances are their advice didn’t feel helpful to you at the time. But even though the delivery of the advice may have felt invalidating, research shows there is some scientific truth to this statement. Just breathing has been helping people manage strong emotions for thousands of years.
Mindfulness meditation – which involves breathing – is an ancient practice used now by people around the world to cope with a wide variety of health conditions, from depression and anxiety to physical symptoms like chronic pain.
Some may feel skeptical about mindfulness meditation, but an extensive body of scientific research shows it works; it’s especially effective against stress, depression, and anxiety.
In this article, we’ll dive deep into what mindfulness meditation is, what it’s not, and how you can harness its power to manage symptoms of depression and anxiety.
What is mindfulness meditation?
To define it, mindfulness is resting your full awareness on each present moment. To add to this definition, mindfulness implies non-judgmental awareness, staying current with each moment without judging it as “bad” or “good,” even when the present moment feels unbearably painful.
Mindfulness originated in Eastern spiritual practices and dates back thousands of years. It was introduced to the West in the 20th century and is now practiced both secularly and as part of a more extensive spiritual practice.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is recognized as the first person to utilize mindfulness in Western medical settings. He created Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a mindfulness training program that is effective in helping people cope with various health conditions.
The most common way to practice mindfulness is through sitting or walking meditation.
During a mindfulness sitting meditation session, practitioners are invited to rest their awareness continuously in the present moment. The breath is often used as an anchor for awareness; you might be guided to notice your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Some teachers use sounds, the heartbeat, or other anchors.
During walking meditation, your teacher may guide you to take each step slowly and carefully, feeling the ground beneath your feet as you walk. Many people pair their breath with their steps, which can help anchor you to each moment.
Whether sitting or walking, the key to mindfulness meditation is staying in the present moment. Mindfulness teaches you to return to the present even when thoughts distract you.
The benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation offers many benefits that positively impact mental and emotional health. Some of the evidence-backed benefits of mindfulness include:
- Reduced stress: Mindfulness helps lower stress levels by helping you have a calmer and more centered mindset.
- Enhanced emotional regulation: Practicing mindfulness can improve your ability to manage and regulate your emotions.
- Increased self-awareness: Mindfulness can help you better understand your thoughts, feelings, and reactions.
- Improved Focus and Concentration: Mindfulness exercises train the mind to stay present, enhancing focus and concentration.
- Better sleep quality: Mindfulness techniques can lead to improved sleep patterns and better sleep quality.
- Greater resilience: Mindfulness cultivates resilience in facing life’s challenges and setbacks.
- Boost in mood: Mindfulness contributes to a more positive outlook and an overall improved mood.
- Decreased rumination: Mindfulness helps break the cycle of negative rumination and overthinking.
- Better relationship skills: Mindfulness fosters better communication and empathy in your relationships.
- Pain management: Mindfulness has been shown to help people manage chronic pain and discomfort.
- Improved cognitive function: Mindfulness can enhance cognitive abilities like decision-making and problem-solving.
- Lower blood pressure: Mindfulness techniques may contribute to lower blood pressure and better heart health.
- Increased overall well-being: Regular mindfulness practice supports overall well-being and life satisfaction.
- Alleviated symptoms of depression and anxiety: Mindfulness can lead to decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety, which we’ll talk about in more detail in the next section.
How does mindfulness help with anxiety and depression?
Research shows that mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness-based interventions are very effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression.
Most of the research that’s been conducted has studied the effects of MBSR. These studies have found that MBSR is a safe and effective treatment for depression, stress reduction, and anxiety. One analysis review found the average effect size for MBSR on anxiety and depression was moderate to large – and, in some studies, MBSR was as effective as cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety (which is considered the first-line treatment).
Other effective treatments for depression and anxiety that use mindfulness meditation include mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. These treatments are grounded in cultivating mindfulness to understand better and manage thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. By teaching individuals to approach their experiences with acceptance rather than avoidance, these therapies help in reducing the symptoms of depression and anxiety. They encourage a non-judgmental, present-moment awareness, which enables individuals to break free from the cycle of negative thought patterns. This approach not only helps in managing current symptoms but also in building resilience against future mental health challenges.
Mindfulness meditation works for people with depression and anxiety in a few different ways. First, mindfulness meditation helps you to become more aware of your thoughts and feelings. Depression and anxiety cause you to fall into unhelpful and often irrational thinking patterns. These patterns can make you feel even worse than you already do.
With mindfulness, you learn to be aware of these thoughts without judgment. You can observe these thoughts just like you observe clouds in the sky. When you don’t become attached to negative thoughts, they’re less likely to make you feel bad.
Mindfulness has also been shown to change your brain chemistry physically. For example, in one study, people who meditated for 30 minutes daily experienced increased gray matter in their hippocampus. The hippocampus is an area of the brain that gets affected when you have depression.
Meditation has also been shown to break the connection between the amygdala – the brain’s “fear center” – and the prefrontal cortex – the brain’s area responsible for painful rumination and stressful thinking. Meditation helps you ignore the incorrect stress signals that your brain sends when you’re experiencing anxiety or depression, which makes you feel calmer.
Myths about mindfulness meditation
Although mindfulness meditation has made its way into mainstream psychology, it’s sometimes misunderstood. Here are some common myths or misconceptions about mindfulness – and helpful explanations to better understand what mindfulness is (and what it’s not).
Myth: Easily distracted people can’t practice mindfulness.
Anybody can practice mindfulness meditation. If sitting meditation is too difficult to start with, there are many other ways to practice (like mindful walking meditation or mindful movement) that may be easier for you.
Myth: Christians shouldn’t practice mindfulness because it’s another religion.
Mindfulness is not a religion. Although it has its roots in some Eastern spiritual traditions, it’s now practiced secularly. People of all religious backgrounds can and do benefit from mindfulness.
Myth: Mindfulness is about shutting down your thoughts.
Shutting down any part of your experience goes against the fundamentals of mindfulness. Mindfulness invites you to stay present with whatever comes up – including thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences. It’s not about shutting down your thoughts or not letting them control you.
Myth: I will always feel relaxed after a mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness is different from relaxation strategies like progressive muscle relaxation. Mindfulness meditation is about being present with whatever is there – even when it’s uncomfortable. Although you may come out of meditation sessions feeling relaxed, that may not always be true. However, mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce stress over time.
How to start a mindfulness practice: Tips and exercises
If you want to try mindfulness meditation, follow these tips to build a solid practice over time.
- Set aside time for mindfulness meditation. Allocate a consistent time every day. Start with short meditations – maybe 2 to 3 minutes daily – and gradually increase the duration. Mindfulness, like any habit, is about building a routine.
- Choose a comfortable space. Designate a quiet, comfortable spot for your mindfulness practice. The ideal environment minimizes distractions, but mindfulness can be practiced anywhere – even in chaos!
- Focus on your breath. Most people find it easiest to begin with breath awareness, feeling each inhale and exhale. When thoughts arise (as they inevitably will), gently return to your breath. Don’t judge yourself for having thoughts. Simply return to your breath.
- Try mindful eating, a way to incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine. Start by fully savoring each bite. Engage all of your senses to appreciate the taste and texture of your food.
- If you find it challenging to sit in silence, use guided meditation resources to structure your practice. These sessions offer step-by-step guidance, making mindfulness more accessible.
- Many people find it helpful to set mindfulness cues around their house. For example, you might practice three mindful breaths whenever you hear your phone’s notification bell. You might remember returning to the present moment whenever you open a door. These everyday cues can remind you to practice even outside of your daily meditation sessions.
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1 – https://jonkabat-zinn.com/about/jon-kabat-zinn/
2 – https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2021/06/mindfulness-your-health
3 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5679245/
4 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/
5 – https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-mindfulness-change-your-brain-202105132455