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What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is said to help with everything from depression to sleep. Here’s a guide to what it is, and how you can benefit from being more mindful

Written by Laura Potter on March 8, 2019 Reviewed by Carolina Brooks on March 13, 2019

From mindful eating to mindful walking, mindfulness has become a popular way to cope with the stresses of modern life. And it’s here to stay –2018 saw a 170% growth in revenue from wellness apps, most of it focused on mindfulness and other forms of meditation.1

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a type of meditation that makes us more aware of the mind-body connection and helps us focus on being in the moment. This means that rather than worrying about the past or stressing about the future, you focus on becoming aware of your breathing, your thought patterns, and your five senses in the here and now.2,3 To practice mindfulness, all you need is a place to sit. Close your eyes and tune into your senses – think about the feeling of your feet on the floor, your clothes on your skin, and the sounds you hear. Concentrate on how your breathing feels, without trying to change it. Your mind will wander off and that’s completely normal – when you realise, just gently bring it back to your breathing.4

How does mindfulness work?

In several ways. By clearing out the clutter in your mind, and experiencing the moment in a non-judgemental way, you can train the brain to change the way it processes challenging information, while dialling down on fear, anxiety and stress. Over time, the brain learns to respond positively to stressful situations rather than with a negative reaction. Meanwhile, the slow, deep breathing calms the nervous system.5 It’s been shown that mindfulness can change the structure of your brain, too. A 2011 study by Harvard Medical School found that after an eight-week mindfulness course, participants showed an increase in amount of grey matter (where most neurons are found) in several regions of their brains:6
  • left hippocampus – needed to help regulate emotion
  • posterior cingulate cortex – involved in learning, motivation and mind-wandering7
  • temporoparietal junction – important for perspective, empathy and compassion
  • cerebellum – needed to help regulate emotion and cognition

What are the benefits of mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness has been shown to have many important health benefits. These include:

Easing depression and anxiety

A 2017 Swedish study found that mindfulness was as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for people with depression, anxiety and stress-related disorders.8 Mindfulness has also been shown to be effective in helping to prevent relapse after depression, for eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorders.9 Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy – a type of cognitive therapy using mindfulness exercises such as focusing on your breathing – is recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to help reduce symptoms of depression for people who’ve had three or more episodes of depression.10

Fewer cravings

A 2018 review of 30 studies in Clinical Psychology Review found that mindfulness strategies can help prevent or interrupt cravings for food, cigarettes and alcohol. Researchers suggested it interrupts craving by occupying your working memory, needed to remember and process information at the same time.11

Improved concentration

Mindfulness is really useful for your focus too, according to a 2016 review of 4,000 studies in Journal of Management. The researchers examined the results of mindfulness training at work, and found that it can improve your focus and attention span, helping you concentrate for longer on visual and listening tasks.12

Better sleep

Mindfulness meditation can relax your muscles, slow the heart and help your brain wind down in preparation for sleep, according to a 2016 Canadian study. The researchers reported that mindfulness led to significant improvements in sleep for people with insomnia or disturbed sleep.13

Ease IBS

There’s some evidence that mindfulness can help those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) too. In 2011 researchers from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discovered that women with IBS who followed a mindfulness-based training programme reported having fewer symptoms, better quality of life and less anxiety. The effects also lasted three months after their initial training sessions.14

How to start being more mindful

  • eat more mindfully – aim to tune into each of your senses during meals. For example, focus on the feel of the orange as you peel it, the taste of juice as you bite, and the scent of citrus. You should also pay more attention to your body, listening to when it tells you to eat, or when you’re full15
  • download a mindfulness app – it will guide you through the process of discovering the technique. Calm and Headspace are both popular
  • try a body scan – as you lie in bed, think about how each part of your body feels, working slowly from your head to your toes
 Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.

Sources

1. Rhett Power. Inc. 4 Neglected Niches in the Wellness App Market 2. Lecia Bushak. Medical Daily. Mindfulness Vs Meditation: The Difference Between These Two Pathways to Well-Being And Peace Of Mind 3. Explore Integrative Medicine. The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation 4. Mindful. How to Practice Mindfulness 5. Hofmann SG, et al. The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review 6. Holzel BK, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density 7. Ben Y Hayden. Psychology Today. The Brain Region That Shouldn’t Be There 8. Sundquist J, et al. The effect of mindfulness group therapy on a broad range of psychiatric symptoms: A randomised controlled trial in primary health care 9. Bulzacka E, et al. [Mindful neuropsychology: Mindfulness-based cognitive remediation] 10. NICE. Depression in adults 11. ScienceDaily. Mindfulness may help reduce cravings for food and drugs, says review 12. ScienceDaily. Mindfulness in the workplace improves employee focus, attention, behaviour, new management-based research concludes 13. Garland SN, et al. The Quest for Mindful Sleep: A Critical Synthesis of the Impact of Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Insomnia 14. Gaylord SA, et al. Mindfulness training reduces the severity of irritable bowel syndrome in women: results of a randomized controlled trial 15. Christopher Willard. Mindful. 6 Ways to Practice Mindful Eating

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