Mindfulness, an ancient practice developed to focus attention and awareness, has gained in popularity over the last several decades. Grown out of Zen Buddhism and present in many religious traditions, mindfulness is now taught as a non-religious practice.
Along with it's growing popularity, has been a growing body of research on the effectiveness of mindfulness. A recent edition of Monitor on Psychology identifies a multitude of psychological benefits.
1. Reductions in Rumination: Rumination, that is, going over something in your mind repetitively, is often an unpleasant symptom of stress, depression and anxiety. In several studies, novice meditators, after training in mindfulness, reported less rumination, decreases in depression and were better able to sustain attention on tasks than groups who were not trained in mindfulness.
2. Decreased Stress: Mindfulness has been practiced for the purpose of stress reduction for decades. In an analysis of studies on mindfulness and stress reduction, researchers found that mindfulness increases positive emotions and decreases anxiety. The review of these studies found that mindfulness may alter how we process emotion and our thoughts.
3. Improvements in Memory: In studies of mindfulness with groups in the military, those who participated in mindfulness training had improved memory, even during stressful periods before deployment, while those who did not, experienced decreased working memory during those times of stress.
4. Decreased Emotional Reactivity: Research shows that mindfulness can help people disengage from emotionally upsetting information. Those trained in mindfulness were then better able to focus on cognitive tasks, than those who had not been trained in mindfulness.
5. More Flexible Thinking: When we get stuck in rigid patterns of thinking we are more likely to become stressed, anxious and depressed. Flexible thinking and the ability to self-observe and take in new information tends to improve positive emotion. New research on the brain has found that mindfulness practice disengages certain pathways in the brain formed from previous learning and allows input from the present moment. It also activates the brain region associated with more adaptive responses to stressful circumstances.
6. Improved Relationships: Several studies have linked mindfulness practice to relationship satisfaction. Mindfulness practice can improve your ability to respond to relationship stress and communicate your emotions effectively.
Studies of mindfulness have identified other benefits, such as enhancing insight, morality and intuition. Research on the brain and health has linked mindfulness with increased immune functioning, improvement in well-being and reductions in psychological distress.
It's hard to know exactly why mindfulness has grown in popularity now, but it does seem to be the antidote to much of the pressure and stress present in our daily lives. Our culture has changed dramatically over the last century. With new technologies, such as radio, TV, computers, the internet and cell phones, our brains now exposed to information and images at a much more rapid rate than at any time in human history. Mindfulness can help us focus in the midst of overwhelming amounts of information, pressures to act quickly and competing demands on our attention.