Extensive research has been carried out that demonstrates and supports the positive effects that mindfulness can have on mental health. This article focuses on 5 key ways that mindfulness can benefit your mental health:
1. Helps to regulate emotions
MRI scans have been used to measure how the brain is influenced by the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness helps the different parts of the brain to work together in a more harmonious and connected way. The different parts of the brain that are associated with regulating our mood and emotions have been shown to strengthen from the practice of mindfulness. The brains ability to regulate our emotions is a very important skill that prevents us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed and helps to protect us from feelings of depression and anxiety.
2. Reduces stress and anxiety levels
The amygdala is an important part of the brain that alerts us to dangers in our environment. It is associated with the “fight, flight, and freeze” response. When a person is experiencing difficulties with overwhelming feelings of anxiety or stress, part of the problem is that the amygdala has become over active and is firing and alerting them to threats or dangers in the environment, when no actual danger or threat exists. The practice of mindfulness has been shown to calm and reduce the activity of the amygdala and therefore reduce the levels of stress and anxiety a person experiences.
3. Relate to your thoughts in a new way
Our thoughts can have a very powerful effect on how we feel about ourselves. Without realising it, we continuously add meaning to thoughts as they arise in our mind, placing great importance on them, believing them to be the absolute truth.
We can get caught up in very unhelpful thought patterns. In the case of depression, we can get caught in a thought pattern called “rumination”. This is where we believe that by focusing on solving something that is making us unhappy, we will find the solution. But actually all we are doing is go over and over the same event or situation in our mind in a way that is creating many unhelpful feelings and emotions that are contributing even further to our low mood.
In the case of anxiety, we can fall into a thinking pattern called “catastrophizing”. This is where we have a thought that we blow up out of all proportion. For example, a thought or fear might arise in our mind about the future, and before we know it, our thoughts have imagined that the absolute worst case scenario has became a reality in our lives.
With mindfulness we learn to relate to thoughts in a new way by allowing them to come and go. We stop adding meaning to our thoughts and see them instead as mental events that happen in our mind, and not as facts or the truth about who we are.
Some people find it helpful to imagine that the mind is like a big bright blue sky, and that thoughts are like the clouds that come and go and float across the sky. Just like the clouds, we don’t try and chase our thoughts, instead we let them come and go and float in and out of our mind.
4. We learn to bring more compassion to ourselves
Compassion is a key principle of mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the most well-known and respected individuals in the area of mindfulness has defined mindfulness as “open-hearted, moment-to-moment, non-judgemental awareness”.
Through mindfulness we learn to accept ourselves in this moment, just as we are. We stop striving towards some future point in our lives where we believe we will be happy with ourselves. A compassionate attitude can be particularly helpful to us in our modern day lives where life can be busy, and where there can be many demands placed upon us. We bring kindness to ourselves as we trust that we are doing our best in a demanding world, and we allow ourselves to let a certain amount of pressure fall away.
Bringing compassion to ourselves in the present moment can also be very healing to us as we work through painful past events. Offering ourselves this kindness and care can free us from the hold that these painful past events might have on us, allowing us to experience greater levels of happiness in our present day life.
5. Appreciation of the joy available in the present moment
Jon Kabat-Zinn has said “I like to think of mindfulness simply as the art of conscious living”.
Without realising it we can become completely preoccupied by the activity of the mind. This can cause us to become entirely disconnected from the moment we are in. Maybe we are out for a walk on a beautiful sunny day, but our mind is off somewhere completely different lost in concerns and worries. If we can make a deliberate effort to return our attention to the moment that we are in, we begin to realise that there is often so much to appreciate, that there are many small and simple pleasures that can contribute in a very positive and meaningful way to the health and wellbeing of our mind.
A word of caution
Mindfulness definitely doesn’t have all the answers, and it may not always be a suitable practice for some individuals. If for example you are going through a particularly difficult period in your life right now – perhaps experiencing a period of depression, it may be better to wait until you feel more grounded in yourself before you commence a mindfulness practice.
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Williams, M., Teasdale, J., & Segal, Z., Kabat-Zinn, J., (2007). Mindful way through depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness. New York: Guildford Publications.