The Elusive Antidote that is Mindfulness: Unpacking the Benefits of Mindfulness and Practicing it in Our Daily Lives

By Marielle Samii

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Recently, I have been hearing a lot of talk about the benefits of practicing mindfulness. A quick google search can send you down a myriad of different descriptions advertising benefits that range from improved brain functioning, to enhanced physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing both in everyday life and in clinical settings. The practice itself seems so simple, and because of this I felt like these benefits offered more than the practice itself could provide. At the same time, I refused to immediately dismiss this as a pseudoscience fad. I felt compelled to unpack what it really means to practice mindfulness and if the supposed benefits align with findings in the scientific literature, below are some of my general findings.

Before accepted in the western culture, mindfulness was cultivated in both religious and secular practices in the foundations of the history of Buddhism and Hinduism. In Buddhism, mindfulness or Sati, was the fundamental quality garnered to the path of enlightenment. Even further back, in Hinduism traditions, mindfulness was intertwined in the practice of yoga and Vedic meditation. While mindfulness dates back to the earliest traditions of Hinduism more than 4,000 years ago, mindfulness did not gain leverage in Western culture until the late 19th century — when Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School where he established the first Mindfulness Stress Reduction program that included an eight-week program centered around stress reduction. Since then, there has been a growing wealth of research investigating the clinical, behavioral, and neuroscientific implications of practicing mindfulness.

Because there are so many claims about the benefits of mindfulness in daily and clinical settings, I decided to focus this section on benefits that appeal to the more general public — namely ways that us college students could really thrive from. Some of these benefits include: improved cognitive and overall brain functioning, greater feelings of emotional control, feeling of calmness/compassion, and improved sleep quality.

· Improved Cognitive/Brain Functioning:

A study was done about in University of North Carolina to assess short term benefits of a brief mindfulness meditation training as compared to the reported long-term benefits. There, undergraduates were either given four sessions of meditation training or placed in a group that listened to an audiobook. The study’s goal was to assess whether or not a short-term mindfulness training could improve cognition and mood compared to an active control group (Zeidan et al., 2010). Students completed mood measurements and cognitive tests that assessed verbal fluency, visual coding, and working memory before and after the training. The results were promising; after just four sessions of mindfulness training, the mindfulness group showed significant improvement in executive functioning tasks like visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and inhibitory control. While both interventions improved mood, only the mindfulness meditation training reduced fatigue and anxiety (Zeidan et al., 2010).

· Enhanced Emotional Control:

To assess the benefits of mindfulness in a work place setting, Hulsheger, Alberts, Feinholdt, and Lang (2012) examined 64 employees and measured the effects of mindfulness and emotional exhaustion, emotion regulation, and job satisfaction after implementing a self-training mindfulness intervention. Findings of the study expressed that decreases in emotional exhaustion and increase in job satisfaction was associated with the group that was given the mindfulness meditation training (Hülsheger, Fienholdt, & Lang, 2012). Another study examined the practice of mindfulness in previous correlation, laboratory, experimental, and treatment to examine outcomes of the practice. In an analysis of these types of studies, there was consistency amongst the results between different studies and within similar types of studies. All of the studies reported in the analysis found significant findings that mindfulness reduced intensity of distress, enhanced emotional recovery, reduced negative self-referential processing, and enhanced ability to engage in goal-directed behaviors (Roemer, Williston, & Rollins, 2015).

· Feelings of Calmness/Compassion

In an article by the American Psychological Association that looked at various empirical findings of the benefits of mindfulness, they reported that practice like yoga, tai chi, and qigong, can cultivate mindfulness. Also, in practicing mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, can promote self-regulating practices that train our attention and awareness to cultivate a greater sense of well-being and promote feelings of calmness, clarity and concentration (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006 as cited in David & Hayes, 2012).

· Better Sleep Quality

In a study of 166 college students, researchers examined whether or not levels of mindfulness would increase in movement-based courses, and further examine changes in self-regulatory behaviors and better sleep quality (Caldwell, Harrison, Adams, Quin, & Greeson 2010). Students were measured at three points in the semester to measure mindfulness self-regulatory behaviors and sleep quality after 15 week classes of Pilates, Taiji quan, or gyrokinesis, and the end of the 15 weeks, researchers found that greater changes in mindfulness score increased the subsequent subscales overall. Notably, changes in mindfulness were directly related to better sleep quality at the end of the semester (Caldwell et al., 2010).

Because the premise of mindfulness is to focus on the present moment, a simple way to practice mindfulness meditation is by focusing on the breath. Often times, the mind likes to wander and fixate on past events or future tasks we need to accomplish. By focusing on the breath, we are in the present. With this, the idea of mindfulness is so simple, yet it can also be difficult for us to practice it when we are stressed. Below are different types of mindfulness exercises to help us stay present in the moment (Newman, 2016):

· Breathing meditation:

o Attending to the sensations of breathing noting what sensations come when it flows in and out of the body

· Body scan:

o Focusing on each individual body part in turn, from head to toe

· Loving-kindness meditation:

o Practice that fosters positive feelings of love and care

o Loving feelings towards, self, close loved ones, acquaintances, and expanding to strangers

· Observing-thought meditation:

o Practice that brings attention to thoughts that arise and labeling them as positive or negative; however, the point of the exercise is to let the thoughts pass once they are labeled — it is a practice of detachment

Sources:

Caldwell, K., Harrison, M., Adams, M., Quin, R. H., & Greeson, J. (2010). Developing Mindfulness in College Students Through Movement-Based Courses: Effects on SelfRegulatory Self-Efficacy, Mood, Stress, and Sleep Quality. Journal of American College Health,58(5), 433–442. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07448480903540481

Davis, D. M., & Hayes, J. A. (2012, July & Aug.). What are the benefits of mindfulness. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx

Hülsheger, U. R., Alberts, H. J., Feinholdt, A., & Lang, J. W. (2012). Benefits of Mindfulness at Work: The Role of Mindfulness in Emotion Regulation, Emotional Exhaustion, and Job Satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/a0031313

J. (2017, March 14). History of Mindfulness: From East to West and From Religion to Science. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/history-of-mindfulness/

Newman, K. M. (2016, October 13). How to Choose a Type of Mindfulness Meditation. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from https://www.mindful.org/choose-type-mindfulness-meditation/

Roemer, L., Williston, S. K., & Rollins, L. G. (2015). Mindfulness and emotion regulation. Emotion regulation,3, 52–57. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.02.006

Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition,19, 587–605. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2010.03.014

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