This article will answer all your most pressing questions about mindfulness, including what is mindfulness, what are its benefits, and how to practice it.
Of course, if you have a question that isn’t answered, feel free to leave it in the comments at the bottom of the page 🙂
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is paying attention to the immediate moment, intentionally, and with curiosity and compassion (1).
An important feature of mindful attention is that it’s non-judgmental toward whatever is observed.
That is, it’s focusing on the experience, but not the story behind or about the experience.
For example, you might practice noticing what you’re thinking, feeling, or experiencing, without labeling it as “good” or “bad” or letting yourself get carried away in the moment.
With a more mindful approach, you might instead make an effort to acknowledge your experience, then choose how to respond to it, rather than react to it.
Put simply, you’ll be more in control of your thoughts and feelings, or at least how they affect your quality of life.
This isn’t just optimism or empty woo-woo encouragement.
There’s plenty of research on the benefits of mindfulness.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Considering the word includes “mind”, you might (correctly) assume positive effects on mental health.
A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis found one popular way to practice mindfulness – meditation – to improve anxiety, depression, pain, stress/distress, and mental health-related quality of life (2).
Yet, mindfulness doesn’t only benefit the mind.
A 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis found that mindfulness helped decrease binge eating and impulsive eating, and helped promote physical activity, although it might not promote weight loss (3).
A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis found that mindfulness not only helped reduce binge eating, impulsive eating, and restrained eating, but also anxiety and depression, in addition to helping facilitate weight loss (4).
What about other aspects of physical health?
A 2016 systematic review exploring the effects of mindfulness meditation on the immune system identified evidence for mindfulness improving markers of inflammation, cell-mediated immunity, and biological aging (5).
In a trial conducted in 2018, 60 patients with coronary artery disease were split into two groups – one that was instructed to practice meditation and another that wasn’t (6).
After six months, those in the group that practiced meditation were observed to have lower fasting and postprandial (after a meal) blood sugar and glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c).
If you’re more concerned with athletic performance than longevity, you might want to know that mindfulness has been shown to help competitors reach flow state and decrease experiential avoidance, pessimism, and anxiety (7,8,9).
Physical health, however, isn’t the only factor in living your best life.
After all, what good is knowing what to do if you don’t actually do those things consistently?
How to practice mindfulness
Some popular ways for practicing mindfulness are (16):
- Paying attention to bodily sensations (a “body scan”)
- Focusing on breathing, sounds, thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
- Tuning in to feelings and observations while walking, standing, or yoga, or even brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or eating.
- Practicing separation from thoughts (“thoughts are not facts” or “I am not my thoughts”)
You don’t have to spend hours on the top of a mountain, legs crossed, chanting mantras to benefit from mindfulness.
Practicing for even a few minutes a day, consistently, can help you develop the habit and reap its rewards (17).
You might be concerned about not being able to silence your thoughts, thinking that this means you aren’t doing it “right”.
The point, however, isn’t so much to silence your thoughts as it is to practice observing them.
That is, if you notice your mind racing, you’re actually on the right path.
Rather than try to silence your mind, try to acknowledge it.
This might be really uncomfortable at first.
That’s totally normal.
This is just like any other new skill.
It takes time, effort, and practice.
Keep doing the work.
Take it one day at a time.
Understand that you won’t be perfect.
You don’t need to be.
You just need to be consistent.
Start where you are.
Do what you can.
You’ve got this.