Last updated: December 9th, 2020
With historic roots in Buddhism, mindfulness is now commonly practiced around the world. Contemporary research has examined the health benefits of mindfulness, which include weight management and improving symptoms of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and insomnia. (2)(6)(11) This article explores the concept of mindfulness, how it works, associated health benefits, and simple tips to help you incorporate mindfulness into your lifestyle.
What is mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in contemporary mindfulness research and practice, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”. (6) This involves focusing attention on thoughts, emotions, events, and surroundings as they occur, without assigning judgment or meaning.
The Heart of Buddhist Meditation outlines the Four Foundations of Mindfulness:
- Contemplation of the body
- Contemplation of feeling
- Contemplation of the state of mind
- Contemplation of mental contents (10)
Mindfulness differs from meditation as it refers to qualities such as awareness and attention, while meditation is a tool or practice used to develop those qualities. (6)
Types of mindfulness practices
Mindfulness practices can generally be categorized into formal and informal mindfulness. Formal mindfulness is defined as dedicating specific time for mindfulness meditation, which may include activities such as sitting meditation, body scanning, and mindful movement, such as tai chi and yoga. On the other hand, the act of integrating mindfulness into everyday activities, such as folding laundry or washing dishes, can be classified as informal mindfulness. (1)
Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are standardized programs, commonly taught over an eight week period. MBIs teach mindfulness skills with the purpose of improving the individual’s relationship with their thoughts, increasing intentional attention, and incorporating strategies to address emotions and thoughts without judgment. (12) Examples include mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
MBSR training, created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, includes learning about the foundations of mindfulness and how it can be applied to daily life, as well as practicing meditation daily over eight weeks. The formal practices of MBSR include:
- Hatha yoga, which is a gentle form of yoga that emphasizes mindful movement
- Body scan, which is intended to bring awareness to the body, region by region
- Sitting meditation, which is designed to bring awareness to the breath and increase awareness of the four foundations of mindfulness (3)
MBCT, on the other hand, combines elements of mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive therapy, an approach used in psychotherapy. The approach was originally developed to teach psychological skills to prevent the relapse of depression. (8)
How mindfulness works
The benefits of mindfulness may be a result of changes in brain structure seen in individuals who practice mindfulness. A meta-analysis examining changes in various measures of grey and white brain matter in meditators found that meditation was consistently associated with alterations in eight brain regions, including:
- The hippocampus, associated with memory consolidation
- Sensory cortices and insula, associated with body awareness
- Frontopolar cortex/BA 10, associated with meta-awareness
- The orbitofrontal cortex and the anterior and mid cingulate, associated with self and emotion regulation
- The superior longitudinal fasciculus and corpus callosum, associated with communication between and within brain hemispheres (4)
Another study examined the structural and functional brain changes that occured in novices that practiced mindfulness meditation for forty days. Interestingly, the researchers found that cortical thickness of the precuneus region increased and low-frequency amplitude brain waves decreased. These structural and functional changes were correlated with improvements in anxiety and depression scores. (13)
Health benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness-based interventions have been studied for their effects on mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Research suggests that mindfulness may have a number of potential applications, including anxiety and depression, weight management, chronic pain, and insomnia.
Anxiety and depression
A meta-analysis of 209 studies examining mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) proposed that MBT may be more effective in psychological conditions than in physical health conditions. Clinically significant improvement was found in individuals with anxiety and depression. Further, the benefits were maintained at follow-up, suggesting that ongoing commitment to MBT is high. (7)
A systematic review and meta-analysis examining the effect of MBIs on weight loss found that MBIs may be effective for long-term weight loss and improving obesity-related eating behaviors. The meta-analysis found that, while individuals following diet and exercise programs lost more weight initially (4.7% of starting body weight), these groups experienced a slight weight gain at follow-up, an average of approximately 16 weeks following treatment. On the other hand, individuals following MBIs showed slightly less initial weight loss (3.3.%) but with continued weight loss during study follow-up. (2)
Research suggests that MBIs, such as yoga, meditation, and stress reduction techniques, may benefit chronic pain by improving mobility and lowering an individual’s perception of pain. (9) A systematic review of thirty-eight randomized controlled trials found that mindfulness meditation was associated with improved pain, quality of life, and symptoms of depression in individuals with chronic pain. (5)
Mindfulness may also improve insomnia, a condition characterized by chronic difficulty falling or staying asleep. In an eight-week randomized, controlled study, participants were divided into three groups: a MBSR group, a mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia (MBTI) group, or a self-monitoring (SM) control group. Compared to the control group, the results demonstrated that individuals in the MBSR and MBTI groups had significantly reduced total wake time and improved scores on the Insomnia Severity Index and the Pre-Sleep Arousal Scale, two insomnia questionnaires. (11)
Tips to incorporate mindfulness
Follow these simple steps to incorporate mindfulness into your routine.
Some of the challenges commonly reported with mindfulness include a lack of motivation or time. (1) If you’re new to mindfulness practice, you can start with meditating for one to three minutes per day, gradually building up from there. It may be helpful to incorporate mindfulness practices consistently at the same time each day to establish a regular routine.
Try different types of mindfulness practice
Fortunately, there are many different types of mindfulness and meditation practices. You may want to try a variety of activities, ranging from informal mindfulness during your daily commute to guided mindfulness meditation or a physical yoga practice. Finding your preference of mindfulness practice can help you adhere in the long run.
Use a mindfulness app
Mobile guided meditation and mindfulness apps may be a useful tool to help you learn mindfulness techniques and remain accountable to your practice. Many apps are free, with optional in-app purchases for additional features. The following table summarizes key features of several of the highest-rated mindfulness apps that are currently available for both Android and iPhone devices.
Be patient with yourself
Individuals who try mindfulness often feel concerned about “not being able to do it” or unsure about whether they’re “getting it right”. (1) According to Kabat-Zinn, “from the outset of practice we are reminded that mindfulness is not about getting anywhere else or fixing anything. Rather, it is an invitation to allow oneself to be where one already is and to know the inner and outer landscape of the direct experience in each moment.” (6) This implies that mindfulness practice shouldn’t be focused on an outcome, but on the experience itself.
The bottom line
Mindfulness is accessible to anybody willing to commit and invest a short period of time regularly. There are various potential mental, emotional, and physical benefits of mindfulness, which include addressing anxiety and depression, weight management, chronic pain, and insomnia. Incorporating the tips in this article may be helpful when establishing your own mindfulness practice.
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- Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144–156.
- Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., … Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 763–771.
- Kuyken, W., Warren, F. C., Taylor, R. S., Whalley, B., Crane, C., Bondolfi, G., … Dalgleish, T. (2016). Efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in prevention of depressive relapse: An individual patient data meta-analysis from randomized trials. JAMA Psychiatry, 73(6), 565–574.
- Majeed, M. H., Ali, A. A., & Sudak, D. M. (2018). Mindfulness-based interventions for chronic pain: Evidence and applications. Asian Journal of Psychiatry, 32, 79-83.
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- Ong, J. C., Manber, R., Segal, Z., Xia, Y., Shapiro, S., & Wyatt, J. K. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for chronic insomnia. Sleep, 37(9), 1553–1563.
- Shapero, B. G., Greenberg, J., Pedrelli, P., de Jong, M., & Desbordes, G. (2018). Mindfulness-based interventions in psychiatry. Focus (American Psychiatric Publishing), 16(1), 32–39.
- Yang, C. C., Barrós-Loscertales, A., li, M., & Pinazo, D., Borchardt, V., Avila, C., & Walter, M. (2019). Alterations in brain structure and amplitude of low-frequency after 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training in meditation-naïve subjects. Scientific Reports, 9(1).