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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Getting outside to get well: Forest bathing and urban greenspaces

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Exposure to nature is highly related to overall physical and mental health, whether it comes in larger, outdoor doses or through a collection of houseplants.

The known benefits of human connection to nature, however, is not a new discovery. Despite the relative newness of ecopsychology as a scientific field of study, these concepts reflect centuries of humans relating to the earth. Connectedness to the natural world is consistent with indigenous ways of knowing and healing that has only recently been looked at with a scientific eye. In fact, one theorized explanation for the stress relieving mechanisms of exposure to the natural environment is that we’re reviving a lost connection between ourselves and the natural world that was once an important relationship.

A natural de-stressor

When we experience ‘stress’, what we are experiencing happens at a physiological level. To confront the stressor, our bodies naturally respond with several physical changes, such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, and changes in breathing. This response (also called the ‘fight-flight-freeze response’) is helpful in the short-term, but can have detrimental effects on health and wellness if chronically activated, meaning activated for long periods of time and/or frequently. 

As a form of stress relief, the restorative effects of interaction with nature tap into another bodily response, the ‘rest and digest response’, which causes the body to relax and revive. 

Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

More on stress management that works here.

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Forest bathing

Shinrin-Yoku, popularly known as ‘Forest Bathing’, is a Japanese practice (introduced by the Forest Agency of Japanese government in the 1980’s) that includes sensory mindfulness. The utilization of all five senses taps into the rest and digest response, and when paired with mindful awareness, leads to a de-stressed, relaxed state. Although Forest Bathing might sound poetically intimidating to try, it’s actually considered to be one of the most convenient ways to up your interaction with nature and easily taps into sight, sound, and smell sensations. 

Try it: Head outside and pay attention to your senses. Being mindfully aware is hard, there are lots of things that distract us. Give yourself some time to build a practice.

For how long? According to a 2019 study, spending at least 2 hours a week in nature is the best dose for health benefits.


Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

Urban solutions

The beneficial effects of nature on human health seems like a simple method of health promotion and disease prevention; however, natural spaces are not equitably accessible. Those in lower socioeconomic areas are less likely to have access to parks and other forms of natural spaces. 

One solution? City infrastructure that includes urban green spaces, with intention to inclusivity as to not promote gentrification. More accessible nature in cities is related to improved mental health and increased longevity; outcomes are dependent on how people interact with greenspaces when available, though. Further research is needed to clarify the relationship between urban natural spaces and wellness.


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The Top 10 Easiest Houseplants for Beginners

Nature, indoor and outdoor, has been shown through research to significantly improve mental health, cognition (e.g. memory, concentration), social relationships, and negative reactions to stress. Read more about how houseplants can improve your mental and physical health.

As we spend more time indoors and have less access to outdoor activities, the accessibility of nature becomes more and more limited. One solution? Bring nature indoors and spruce up your space with houseplants.

Busy, homebound, graduate-student-tested, here are the top 10 easiest houseplants to take care of (plus recommendations from the experts).

Products are linked with Amazon’s affiliate program.

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1. Snake Plant

Looking for low maintenance Snake plants might be perfect for you.

Great for any plant parent, as these plants are forgiving. Snake plants can thrive in most environments.

Snake plants are also sharable! See more on how easy they are to separate.

Bring a new snake plant home.


2. Aloe Vera

A low-maintenance plant that is more than just decorative.

Aloe is gorgeous and it can be functional, as the stems contain the aloe gel, which is well known and research-backed to have skin and wound healing properties. Easy to care for, too!

Find your aloe vera plant here.


3. Spider Plant

Spunky and full, spider plants are in and (hopefully) here to stay.

Generally easy to care for, spider plants add a pop of life to any living or office space. They do need bright, indirect light (more tips here).

Grab yourself a spider plant!

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4. Pothos varieties

Pothos are vined beauties and resilience in one.

If you are looking for an easy-to-grow, trailing plant, look at the several varieties that pothos come in.

Like the snake plant, pothos are also super easy to share (check out how to propagate a pothos)

Grab yourself a pothos.


5. Air Plant

Hello, minimalists.

Air plants are unique and add simple character to any space. Caring for them requires minimal effort.

The best part? Finding a decorative home to display your air plant in.

Bonus, they’re budget-friendly.

Look here for air plants.


6. Succulents

Modest required care with a stunning reward.

Succulents are perhaps one of the most common houseplants and they come in many types – varying in color and size.

Succulents are easy to care and look great in arrangements or on their own.

Find your favorite succulent here or grab a complete starter kit.

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7. ZZ Plant

Zzzzzzzz.

The ZZ plant spends a lot of its time dormant, which means you only have to water once a month.

ZZ plants also thrive in most indoor areas, making it a great, resilient option.

Fun fact: these plants are also thought to symbolize friendship, making it a great gift. Buy a ZZ plant for your home today.


8. Monstera

You know it would make the list.

The ever popular monstera skyrocketed in popularity over the last couple year for their unique split leaves.

Plus, they only need water every one to two weeks making them an easy-going roommate. Keep in medium to bright light.

Make your space tropical and trendy!


9. Bamboo

Bamboo is a great option for limited space, since it stays contained to single shoots.

Watch your bamboo quickly grow with little maintenance!

A bonus – bamboo rarely has issues with disease or pests.

Bring home a bamboo plant today


10. Coffee Arabica

And hello, coffee lovers.

What a conversation starter. Grow your own compact coffee plant indoors, adding both greenery and style to your space.

Beautifully, coffee plants bloom little white flowers when mature.

Grab a coffee plant here.


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Houseplants for Healing: Can My House Plants Really Make Me Happier?

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Recent events over the past year have caused dramatic increases in psychological distress. In addition to limiting social connection and recreational activities, social distancing and stay at home orders during the pandemic have changed people’s accessibility to outdoor environmental exposure. Exposure to nature, from access to an office window to physically being in greenspaces, has been shown to improve mood and memory among other cognitive functions, like attention and concentration, and reduce stress levels among numerous other health benefits.

More on stress management that works here.

Ecopsychology “explores humans’ psychological interdependence with the rest of nature and the implications for identity, health, and well-being”. Application of ecopsychology in daily wellness (ecotherapy) does not necessarily have to extend to nature or wilderness retreats or outdoor recreation, but some researchers argue for houseplants as an alternative approach to ecotherapy.

Houseplant shops across the country have seen dramatic increases in plant sales over the last year, thought to be largely in part due to plants becoming an outlet for self-care during pandemic times. Indeed, the houseplant trend is not new to quarantine life, but the connection between nature and self-care has become glaringly important during a uniquely difficult era. 

So, can your plants really make you happier?

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The science behind it

The scientific literature on ecopsychology is relatively scarce when it specifically comes to house plants and psychological wellness (e.g. feeling more content). Nonetheless, in addition to demonstrated psychological benefit of contact with nature, scientific findings suggest mechanisms through (1) stress reduction and (2) stimulating compassion.

One rationale behind why plants might give us a mental health boost is that exposure to greenery appears to reduce physiological and subjective reactions to stress. Stress is highly related to mental health, and as a contributor to stress reduction, ecotherapy may indirectly contribute to better psychological wellbeing.

On the other hand, caring for something may also boost positive moods. Some research suggests a link between plant care, improved relationships, and increased levels of compassion. Caring for nature appears to be a predictor of caring for other people and fostering compassion, which is highly related to psychological well-being. Further, active interactions with indoor plants (e.g. tending to, transplanting) may have even greater psychological benefits than more passive interactions (e.g. looking at).

Some research suggests that women-identifying individuals are more likely to psychologically benefit from houseplants and that flowering plants have been observed to elicit greater benefit than nonflowering plants. Still, the effects appear to benefit across the board and the push for indoor greenery on college campuses may benefit extending to college students and professionals alike who are homebound during the pandemic.

Want to bring a little more nature into your home or office but don’t know where to start? Here are the 10 easiest houseplants to take care of.

Don’t have access to houseplants? Not a problem. Access to nature outdoors also shows consistent benefit to mental wellness (and it’s usually free!).

Read more on getting outside to get well.

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We did the work for you – find a list of the top 10 indoor plants for beginners or those who love low maintenance.

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