The science behind mindfulness

Can mindfulness help us to de-stress, remain calm and be more productive?

Written by Medibank

Mindfulness; could it be an ancient solution to our thoroughly modern problems? Over the past 10 years, mindfulness has been largely touted as a practice which can help to reduce stress, regulate our emotions and increase our productivity — amongst a myriad of other benefits.

But what does science have to say? Is mindfulness really all it’s stacked up to be?

What is mindfulness meditation?

While you may think that in order to be mindful you have to control or stop thoughts — and exist in a state of unconditional positivity — this is not the case. Mindfulness is not about stopping or controlling thoughts or difficult emotions. Rather, it is about making room for your experience, whatever that is, by observing it from a place of openness, curiosity and non-judgement.

This means allowing the thoughts that are often entangled with judgements, opinions and preferences, to exist exactly as they are. The key to mindfulness is acceptance; being able to turn our attention towards what is happening in the present and without struggling with it or resisting it.

In fact, many of us practise mindfulness daily without even realising. Mindfulness is a completely natural quality of attention1 that we all have and that can be practised formally or informally:

  • Formal mindfulness: This type of mindfulness, known as meditation, involves sitting quietly, and focusing your attention on one thing; it may be your breath, holding a soft gaze on an object, or scanning your body. Meditation involves noticing when you’ve lost focus (this is inevitable and part of meditation!) and gently guiding your attention back to your object of focus, over and over.
  • Informal mindfulness: Informal mindfulness practice is about being fully present when engaged in everyday activities. Whether you’re in the shower, eating breakfast or on the train to work, you can practice informal mindfulness by consciously engaging your senses - really paying attention to what you can see, hear, feel, taste and smell.

Medibank is proud to be the Official Health Partner of Smiling Mind, a not-for-profit committed to improving the mental health of young Australians through the practice of mindfulness meditation.

MORE: How to meditate: a beginner’s guide

How mindfulness benefits your health

So, can mindfulness really benefit our health? And what’s actually going on inside our brains? Here we explore three proven ways in which mindfulness is good for us.

A healthier brain2

A small-scale study from researchers at Harvard Medical School, Yale University and Massachusetts-based hospitals could support the idea that meditation can even lead to changes in your brain. By comparing the brains of people who meditate and those who don’t, the researcher’s initial results suggest that meditating may result in structural changes in the areas of the brain associated with cognitive and emotional processing.

Reduced worries and anxiety through better emotion regulation3

One of the first things people who meditate will tell you is that it makes them feel less stressed, and they feel calmer in stressful situations. And there’s science to back this up too.

Multiple studies have found that mindfulness training may help us to regulate our emotions. One study asked 26 patients with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) to participate in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program or a stress management education program. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the brains of participants at the end of the study found the part of the brain — the amygdala — which regulates our emotions turned from having a negative bias to a positive one. This may suggest mindfulness training could lead to brain changes crucial for regulation of emotions.

MORE: Could you benefit from self-care?

Better mental health through prolonged mindfulness practice

While mindfulness may have specific impacts on certain areas of our brain, it can also benefit our overall mental health.

An Australian study1 documented the effects of a mindfulness intervention on 219 participants, aged between 22 - 75 years old across 25 days or more of practice. Prior to partaking in the mindfulness exercise and at its completion, participants completed a survey indicating how they felt about their perceived stress, positive and negative effects, mindfulness and self-compassion.

Results from the intervention survey indicated improvements across the board for all measures tested. The results also showed the longer the meditation intervention, the better the results.

How to start practising mindful meditation

Despite what you may think, practising mindful meditation is easier than you think. Here are a few key pointers to get you started:

  • Start small: If you’re new to meditation, start with shorter sessions to get yourself used to the whole process. Anywhere from 2 - 5 minutes will still give you the benefits of meditation.
  • Set a goal: Just like learning a new language or picking up a new sport, meditation is a skill that requires practice. Try setting a goal to practise mindfulness every day for 21 days — this will help to make meditation a habit.
  • Use a guide: Practising meditation with a guide is a great way for beginners to find their feet. Download the free Smiling Mind app and try a Body Scan to get you started.

To access all free content within the Smiling Mind Family Program, created in collaboration with Medibank, download the Smiling Mind app today (available on iOS and Android) and navigate to Family Program under All Programs.

1 https://link.springer.com/epdf/10.1007/s12671-018-0910-7?a

2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361002/

3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24179799

Written by Medibank

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