last updated September 15, 2021

What Is Mindfulness and How Do You Practice It?

by Rob Arthur

This article will answer all your most pressing questions about mindfulness.

We’ll cover what mindfulness is, 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.

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.

Then, you’ll make an effort not to label your observations as “good” or “bad” or let them carry you away.

Finally, after acknowledging your experience without judgment, you choose how to respond, rather than react, to it.

Stated more simply, mindfulness puts you more in control of your thoughts and feelings.

At the very least, it puts you more in control of how your thoughts and feelings affect your quality of life.

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

Mindfulness is often associated with nebulous, intangible concepts like spirituality or optimism.

In fact, there’s plenty of research demonstrating its benefits in objective, quantifiable ways.

Mindfulness, mental health

Considering the word includes “mind”, you might (correctly) assume positive effects on mental health.

For example, one popular strategy for practicing mindfulness is meditation.

A 2014 systematic review of 47 trials with 3,320 participants found meditation programs to improve anxiety, depression, pain, stress/distress, and mental health-related quality of life (2).

Yet, mindfulness doesn’t only benefit the mind.

Mindfulness and weight loss

A 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis looked at the effects of mindfulness training on weight-loss and health-related behaviors (3).

The authors concluded that mindfulness helped decrease binge eating and impulsive eating, and helped promote physical activity, although it might not promote weight loss.

Similarly, a 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis examined the effects of mindfulness interventions on weight loss (4).

In addition to helping facilitate weight loss, its authors concluded that mindfulness helped reduce binge eating, impulsive eating, and restrained eating.

Furthermore, they found it to help ameliorate anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness and immunity

A 2016 systematic review explored the effects of mindfulness meditation on the immune system (5).

Notably, it identified evidence for mindfulness improving markers of inflammation, cell-mediated immunity, and biological aging .

Mindfulness and cardiovascular disease

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 demonstrated lower fasting and postprandial (after a meal) blood sugar and glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c).

That said, you might be more concerned with athletic performance than longevity.

Mindfulness and athletic performance

In a 2016 experiment, competitive cyclists were randomly assigned either to receive eight weeks of mindfulness training or to a control group with no training (7).

The cyclists who completed the training demonstrated improvements in mindfulness, flow, and pessimism compared to the control group.

Similarly, in a 2018 trial, basketball players were assigned to either complete an eight session mindfulness training program or serve as a control with no training (8).

Again, the basketball players who completed the training showed reduced sports anxiety and experiential avoidance.

For context, experiential avoidance is the avoidance or suppression of unwanted thoughts, emotions, and memories.

Finally, in a 2019 study, baseball players were surveyed before, immediately following, and one month after a single mindfulness training session (9).

At the one month follow-up, the athletes reported not only improved flow, but also anxiety, signs of eating disorders, shape and weight concern, and sleep.

Physical health, however, isn’t the only factor in living your best life.

Other benefits of mindfulness

A pair of studies in 2015 demonstrated that meditation may positively influence job performance, including job satisfaction, subjective job performance, and work engagement (10).

In 2018, a trio of studies suggested that mindfulness might encourage greater acceptance of romantic partners’ shortcomings (11).

This acceptance, in turn, might promote greater relationship satisfaction.

There’s even evidence that mindfulness might help with managing addiction (12).

One area where a regular mindfulness practice really shines is in its ability to promote self-control.

You might think this is only effective during certain stages of development.

However, meditation appears to be helpful in promoting self-control across one’s entire lifetime (13).

We see mindfulness improve self control not only at a variety of ages, but also in a variety of practical applications.

For example, it might help regulate emotions and brain activity when quitting smoking (14).

Similarly, mindfulness training appears to improve emotion regulation, interoceptive awareness, self-compassion, and mindfulness when working to adopt new health behaviors (15).

Regardless of when or how you choose to put it to practice, mindfulness just might be what you need to do those things you want to do to improve your health but are struggling to actually do.

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”)

If you’d like a little guidance, consider using an app like Calm, Headspace, or Waking Up.

Such apps might help you learn how to practice mindfulness and keep you consistent as you get started.

Also, 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.

You might think 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.


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