Just about everywhere you turn these days, mindfulness has become the new hot item. In fact, mindfulness has become so popular that sometimes it seems as though it is ubiquitously applied to just about everything – physicians can use it to improve patient care, athletes to improve their game, and yes, parents to reduce distress and prevent burnout. But how does mindfulness work? Is it really effective? Or is it just a trend?
Despite its newfound popularity, mindfulness is an ancient practice that combines awareness of the current moment with a nonjudgmental attitude. Mindfulness is based on Buddhist insight meditation but there is nothing inherently religious about it and people of any faith can practice it. Practitioners concentrate their awareness on a single-pointed focus and accept the reality of the situation as it unfolds, moment-by-moment. This is a concept that is better experienced than described. That is, understanding mindfulness requires going beyond reading about it – you need to practice it firsthand.
Fortunately, mindfulness can be developed by just about anyone, including busy people who live life in the fast lane. Practicing mindfulness simply requires time, commitment and an open mind. Practitioners tend to improve their attention and concentration, as well as increase their acceptance and ability to stay calm during hectic circumstances.
Individuals often report that mindfulness helps them to relax but relaxation is not a goal of mindfulness. Rather, reducing tension and fatigue are common side effects of mindfulness. Other side effects include creative and flexible coping strategies and an increased ability to notice positive moments throughout the day.
Well controlled causal research has found that mindfulness can be used to treat stress-related illnesses, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and a host of other conditions. Mindfulness also leads to structural changes in the brain. For instance, it is associated with reducing activity in areas of the brain associated with ruminating and other undesirable thinking patterns. Instead, mindfulness increases activity in other “direct experience” areas of the brain and leads to higher levels of gamma activity which allows for greater awareness and prevents the mind from getting stuck on a particular stimulus. In other words, mindfulness is not just “in your head.”
Valerie Repta, MA, MSW, RSW teaches mindfulness-based skills to children, youth, academics, clinicians and individuals with mental health obstacles. She facilitates mindfulness groups and researches the effects of mindfulness on health and well being. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For an upcoming workshop on Mindfulness, please click here for the CISS training schedule.