Mindfulness: Hyping the hype and simplifying the practice

In a world full of trends, we often get wrapped up in parsing out what is simply “the next thing” to temporarily run the health and wellness space versus what is credible and effective. Mindfulness has gained popularity in mainstream media over the past years – and we hope it is here to stay.

Rooted in Eastern philosophical and spiritual practice with the aim of reducing suffering (traced back to early teachings of the Buddha), mindfulness has found itself integrated into modern psychology and healthcare over the last several decades. As a practice, mindfulness has been shown to effectively promote well-being through awareness and skillful response to emotional distress and unhelpful behaviors (e.g. reacting without thinking, substance use, snapping at others). While there are numerous ways to practice, apply, and integrate mindfulness into one’s daily life, at its core the practice is simply:

The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally

– John Kabat-Zinn
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Initially, a mindfulness practice might seem overwhelming. Often, new practitioners feel deterred, with thoughts that they are ‘doing it wrong’ or ‘not good at it’. The nature of mindfulness as a practice is based on the idea that we are so often distracted by other thoughts. The practice of noticing distracted thoughts and pulling oneself back into the present moment is, in fact, the practice of mindfulness. Continued, effortful practice of paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity, kindness, and flexibility is the act of being mindful.

You’re not doing it wrong and you’re not doing it badly. Acknowledge that judgment toward yourself, notice your distracted mind, and return to your practice. Like all skills, mindfulness takes practice.

Getting technical: What is mindfulness?

We can talk about mindfulness in the context of a formal practice as well as a way of being; it can occur across different contexts and includes both formal and informal practices.

A formal mindfulness practice is defined by setting time aside to practice, whether that is breathwork in silence, a guided meditation, or mind-body practice such as yoga. These concentrated practices can bring the habit of cultivating mindfulness into everyday life.

An informal mindfulness practice takes any daily routine and infuses it with mindfulness. For example informal practice may occur while brushing your teeth, eating a meal, or walking the dog.

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To incorporate mindfulness throughout your day, simply approach everyday activities with curiosity and attention while engaging your five senses.

Research suggests that it is the frequency of informal mindfulness practices, not the duration of formal practices, that make a positive difference on well-being. Simply being more mindful during your daily life can benefit you. There’s no magic number to reap the benefits of being more mindful, just aim for consistency in your practice rather than focusing on achieving a certain frequency.

What do we gain from mindfulness?

The benefits of cultivating mindfulness are vast. First, practicing mindfulness allows for present moment awareness. Dwelling on past woes or future-oriented worries quickly remove us from our active lives; the present moment is the only time we have some sense of control over. Regular mindful practices are related to several other positive outcomes, such as improved self-regulation and self-management, decreased impulsivity and increased flexibility to difficult times, improved empathy and compassion, and mental health boosts.

Self-Regulation & Self-Management

Self-regulation, the ability to respond to experiences with emotions in a flexible way, relies on feedback loops between the brain and body as well as the self and the environment. Imagine you’re a thermometer and your top priority is to maintain 50°. If the sun comes out and your temperature starts to rise or it starts to get colder and your temperature drops, you’re not engaging in self-regulation.

If, instead, you find some shade or put on a jacket to maintain 50°, you are able to flexibly respond to changes in the environment.

During mindfulness, the practice of intention and attention help to enhance these feedback loops and provide both more consistency in functioning and adaptability to adversity. 

Decreased Impulsivity & Increased Flexibility to Difficult Times

Mindfulness helps regions of the brain associated with adaptive response to stress and difficult situations. This means that even when something does make you upset or angry, your brain will have the skills to help regulate your emotions and return to a calmer state. 

Mindfulness actually changes your brain. Just like exercise on the track or hitting the weight room, mindfulness has been shown to have structural changes on different components of your brain responsible for adaptive responding, learning and memory, and emotion regulation. In fact, neuroimaging actually shows positive changes in gray matter, a major player in information processing in the brain.

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Empathy & Compassion

Empathy, the ability to understand and even feel someone else’s feelings, and compassion may be strengthened by mindful practice. When your own emotions are regulated, you may have more space for other’s experiences. In addition, the practice of non-judgmental awareness in the present moment encourages an empathetic lens on both self and others. When you are not consumed by the past or future, you have the energy and space to tend to those around you, helping cultivate better connection.

Mental Well-Being

Mindfulness-based therapies have been shown to be effective in the treatment of several conditions, most robust for anxiety, depression, and stress. Mindfulness-based training has also been shown to support student, trainee, and therapist wellness.

The beneficial effects of mindfulness on mental health have been looked at in several ways, one of which is by adding it to therapeutic interventions (e.g. therapy). Briefly, mindfulness-based interventions teach individuals to give their full attention to the present experience, embracing stressful situations without judgment.

Compared to other well-known, evidence-based therapeutic interventions, interventions based on mindfulness appear to have better outcomes for individuals with mental illness, especially among those with depression, pain, smoking, and other forms of addiction. Some researchers recommend using mindfulness-based interventions among patients with neuropsychological concerns, like brain injuries and dementia.

Mindfulness meditation apps have been shown to improve well being and perceived workplace support while decreasing effects of job strain and overall distress.

Try these guided mindfulness practices

Two of our favorite mindfulness apps with guided practice

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