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Recreation

What is Mindfulness?

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“Mindfulness is deliberately paying attention to what is happening now, both in and outside of your personal experience.”

While many associate mindfulness with yoga and even more so with meditation, the reality is that mindfulness is a human capacity that is available everywhere and to everyone.

Yoga and meditation are just two techniques to strengthen our mindfulness muscle, but we can also practice in the way we eat, speak, track our thoughts, in relationship, through nature, and in our daily work life.

“Mindfulness utilizes practices that increase attention span, amplify focus, build resiliency to stress and promote empathy.”

Some synonyms of mindfulness include awareness, alertness, attention, concentration, curiosity, consideration, diligence, focus, interest, listening, presence, tuning-in and watchfulness. All of these qualities can be explored through even a few minutes of practice three to four times a week.

“Mindfulness involves waking up, being fully alive, and being present for the richness of each moment.”

Why Mindfulness is so Popular?

“The most exciting breakthrough of the 21st century will not occur because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.” — John Naisbitt

Modern culture has many elements to celebrate and at the same time we have also created societies and consequently people who are overwhelmed, chronically stressed, and disconnected from the intelligence of the natural world.

Our senses are often assaulted 24/7 by pinging smart phones, tweets, emails, marketing and other life distractions which split attention and prevent any sense of space.

As a result we are on a constant quest for the new, different and exciting, in order to maintain a slightly addictive overstimulated state. Many people struggle with a nervous system that has kicked into a chronic state of hyper-arousal leading to higher occurrences of anxiety, depression, insomnia, weight problems, lowered immunity and autoimmune dysfunction.

Our ability to manage stress and develop skills of resilience is going to be one of the most important aspects of advancing human health now and well into the future, and this is where mindfulness comes in.

The Science

Mindfulness practices enact shifts in parts of the brain such as the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and cortical midline structures. All of which reduce reactivity and encourage more skillful decision making in daily life.
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  • People who practice mindfulness report feeling happier, more grateful, and less reactive, while reducing anxiety, depression, and pain[i].
  • Meditation increases creativity through cognitive flexibility[ii].
  • Mindfulness practice builds resiliency to negative personal life events[iii].
  • Mindfulness can shift brain structures to strengthen our resistance to being distracted by negative emotions [iv].
  • Dr. Langer of Harvard has shown in her 35 years of research that a more active and conscientious awareness in day-to-day life decreases burnout, prejudice, stress, and pain while increasing innovation, charisma, leadership, productivity, memory, attention, learning, self-esteem, positive affect, vision, hearing, weight loss, and longevity[v].
  • A study at UC Santa Barbara found that mindfulness training—even just two weeks’ worth—can improve reading comprehension, working memory capacity, and ability to focus[vi].
  • UC Davis researchers have linked mindfulness to lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This hormone contributes to a range of adverse effects on various physiological systems[vii].
  • The US Navy has shown that compared with a control group of healthy males, Navy SEALs show more activation in the insula, a prune-sized area on the right and left sides of the brain that play a role in self-awareness, pain sensation, and emotion[viii].
  • Mindfulness training impacts the limbic system, or the emotional system of the brain. Specifically, it reduces activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain that determines how much stress we experience and that is central in modulating our fear responses. For example, people with a very active amygdala tend to experience more depression and anxiety[ix].” One specific study looked at the effect on the amygdala of stressed-out business people after one group received mindfulness training and a control group did not. The results showed a reduction in size of the amygdala due to a perception of decreased stress[x].
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  • Mindfulness increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a region of the brain that supports decision-making, planning, abstract thinking, and emotional regulation[xi].
  • Mindfulness increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex—a part of the brain that is closely connected to the PFC and is correlated with empathy and decision making. As these regions show more activation, subjects tend to report greater emotional stability and less reactivity[xii].
  • Generally, we spend a lot of our day in the personal narrative of our life. We obsess about the future, we dwell on that conversation we had with our spouse last week, or last year, and we remain entrenched in the storyline of our life.
    • Researchers call this the “default network” and it’s dominated by cortical midline structures (CMS). While this “default network” has its benefit, when we spend too much time in self-referential thinking, especially if we are caught up in negative thinking, it can lead to poor emotional and behavioral outcomes, including depression and anxiety.
    • Through mindfulness practice, activity in the CMS, the part of the brain related to our personal narrative decreased, and activity in the insula, the part of the brain related to subjective awareness and body awareness, increased. When we move out of the story of our lives and into the actual lived experience of it, we feel better[xiii].
  • In a study on the effects of deep breathing, heart rate variability, and anxiety for professional musicians, researchers found higher levels of heart-rate variability—a measurement of longevityin the groups who participated in breathing exercises[xiv].
  • Deep breathing has also been shown to affect pain perception, autonomic activity, and mood processing in ways that create a potential for more mental and physical ease[xv].
  • Researchers at Boston University measured the effects of posture practice on GABA—a vital neurotransmitter that is found in lower amounts in people experiencing depression or anxiety. The results showed higher mood scales as well as elevated levels of the neurotransmitter in the yoga group as compared to the control group[xvi].
  • Other research has been done on yoga’s effect on oxidative stress & type-2 diabetes[xvii], resilience to work stress[xviii], ease of low back pain[xix], management of negative emotions in high school kids[xx], and flexibility and balance for older adults[xxi].

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For continually updated research on Mindfulness visit the American Mindfulness Research Association.

Endnotes

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[i] Northwestern University: http://nurecreation.com/news/2016/3/31/fitness-wellness-new-meditation-class.aspx
[ii] Muller, B. Gerasimova, A. Concentrative meditation influences creativity by increasing cognitive flexibility.
[iii] Bergeron, C. Implicitly Activating Mindfulness Promotes Positive Responses Following an Ego Threat
[iv] Kirk, Gu, et al. Mindfulness training increases cooperative decision making in economic exchanges: Evidence from fMRI
[v] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XQUJR4uIGM
[vi] http://ideas.time.com/2013/03/27/can-mindfulness-help-you-focus/
[vii] http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/article/29273
[viii] http://www.psmag.com/health/a-state-military-mind-42839/
[ix] http://kripalu.org/blog/thrive/2013/04/29/your-brain-on-mindfulness-meditation/
[x] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19776221http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19776221
[xi] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19941676
[xii] http://kripalu.org/blog/thrive/2013/04/29/your-brain-on-mindfulness-meditation/
[xiii] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23538083
[xiv] http://www.psmag.com/health/performance-anxiety-take-a-deep-breath-47882/
[xv] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01243.x/abstract
[xvi] http://www.bu.edu/today/2010/your-brain-on-yoga-calmer-more-content/
[xvii] Diabetes Care, October, 2011
[xviii] Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, 2011
[xix] Harvard Women's Health Watch, January 2012
[xx] Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, 2011
[xxi] Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 2011

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