Mindfulness and meditation are valuable practices that can greatly improve your mental health in times of uncertainty, stress and anxiety. However, the science behind mindfulness and meditation is rarely touched upon in detail during a standard meditation session.
A practitioner may start by getting you to sit comfortably, followed by a request for you to close your eyes. Then, it’s likely that they will ask you to inhale and exhale slowly. At this point, it would be rare for someone to stop and ask why we do certain things during a session or how they affect us on a less spiritual, more physical level.
What’s the difference between mindfulness and mediation?
Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness and meditation are not one and the same thing, even though the two words are often used interchangeably. It can sometimes be quite confusing so we’d like to start by helping you realize the differences between them.
Although the context in which the two words are used can be similar, their definitions do differ. Meditation is a focus based practice, whereby an individual concentrates on something in order to remain present, guided by their senses.
It can be used to increase awareness of what their senses are telling them through the observation of breathing or sounds, sights, tastes, smells, subtle movements and so on. Mindfulness is when you consciously pay attention to the present moment.
When you find your mind drifting towards the past or imagining the future, you have to regain control and actively focus on the exact moment you’re living through, as it occurs.
Meditation can be a way to incorporate mindfulness into your everyday life but mindfulness isn’t always done through meditation. For example, we can eat mindfully, drink mindfully, work mindfully and whilst we do those things we aren’t meditating.
Think of meditation as more of an umbrella term for a variety of practices which shelter underneath it. Focus and consciousness could be considered the two main aims of meditation practices or techniques. Mindfulness is a form of meditation and very much about making sure you’re only focused on whatever you’re doing in a single moment.
What is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)?
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a popular therapeutic intervention which incorporates mindfulness meditation training. Most of the research in this area is done by neuroscientists who study the association between these interventions and neural mechanisms in the brain.
Mindfulness meditation studies tend to involve the research of psychologists and psychiatrists as well as neurologists. The overall effectiveness of mindfulness meditation sometimes even sparks the interest of philosophers and sociologists, as it leads to questions such as: if more people regularly practiced mindfulness and were more compassionate to one another as a result of that, what effect could it have on society as a whole?
We know that ‘compassion can be cultivated with training [such as mindfulness meditation] and that greater altruistic behavior may emerge from increased engagement of neural systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people, executive and emotional control, and reward processing.’
There are a lot of indications to support the benefits of practicing mindfulness meditation, the key positive changes you might notice after regular sessions are reduced stress or anxiety, a healthier approach to food, better sleeping habits and improved memory.
‘Research over the past two decades broadly supports the claim that mindfulness meditation — practiced widely for the reduction of stress and promotion of health — exerts beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance.'
In one of our blog posts we touched upon some of the ways you can benefit from meditation. The results of meditation training varies from person to person and it should be a very individual experience. Mindfulness meditation can help you to be more content with what you have now, to feel more connected, and to appreciate the little things that we don’t notice, until they’re gone.
Results from a 2011 study revealed that the brains of healthy meditation-naïve people who took part in a MBSR study had changes in gray matter concentration. These changes were found in the regions of the brain ‘involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.’
This isn’t the only study that showed changes in the physical structure of the brain. Data from a 2005 research paper even indicated that ‘regular practice of meditation is associated with increased thickness in a subset of cortical regions related to somatosensory, auditory, visual and interoceptive processing. Further, regular meditation practice may slow age-related thinning of the frontal cortex.’
Although meditation sessions tend to be held in groups, being able to meditate alone can help you immensely. It means you can use the techniques you learn anywhere, whenever you need to, rather than only when you’re in a group setting with a practitioner.
This is understandably one of the reasons why devices such as the Muse headband or applications such as Calm or Headspace are so popular. They enable you to get a one on one meditation session without involving other people.
Headspace has over 65 scientific research studies in progress to make sure they can validate the way they approach meditation with their app. It’s important that companies use external third-party researchers with no association to them so that the results remain unbiased.
Is there evidence that mindfulness or meditation helps people?
Studies into MBSR showed that people felt as though they were more stable internally and were able to think more clearly thus preventing a lot of negative thought patterns associated with a variety of mental health disorders. In 2019, ‘mindfulness-based cognitive therapy demonstrated efficacy in reducing depressive relapse/recurrence.’
In a study from 2012, researchers noted that the ‘results of previous meditation research suggest that meditation improves executive functioning.’ The results of their study confirmed this finding and then further extended ‘it to suggest that this effect can be accounted for by an increase in the acceptance of emotional states, as well as the neural basis for performance monitoring.’
Accepting emotional states of mind, particularly negative ones, enables us to recover from difficult situations more effectively. If you aren’t able to accept an emotional state of mind, it can be hard to move on from it. Meditation (and mindfulness in particular) can help you get out of the feeling of being stuck, emotionally.
A 2009 ‘stress coping program based on mindfulness meditation was an effective intervention for nursing students to decrease their stress and anxiety.’
Sometimes negative thought patterns need to be overwritten and the best way to overcome these patterns is to overwrite them. Replace old data with new data, replace your problem with something that isn’t problematic, replace it with something that simply is, something that exists with you in the here and now.
When your thoughts drift towards something upsetting, you can try to bring them back to something that exists with no emotional attachment and focus on it. Observe (rather than visualise) a physical object, it could be a plant, the ground beneath your feet, your food, a drink, break down what you see into as many sensory categories as possible. How does it look, smell, feel? If it’s edible or drinkable, think of the flavours, the temperature, ‘overthink’ something you might have overlooked.
This idea of not emptying your mind of thoughts during meditation is something that a lot of people are unfamiliar with. This is where mindfulness comes in. A 2013 paper stated that ‘new research is beginning to support the notion that mindfulness may heighten quick affective reactions. This work allows us to revise our understanding of mindfulness so that it does not entail a mind that is empty of thoughts and emotions.’
In 2016, researchers tested the efficacy of an eight week ‘online intervention-based Positive Mindfulness Program (PMP) that integrated mindfulness with a series of positive psychology variables’ which indicated that ‘PMP may be effective in enhancing well-being and other positive variables in adult, non-clinical populations.’
In conclusion, there is no doubt about it, evidence exists not only to suggest but to prove the effectiveness of meditation and mindfulness. If you’re experiencing higher levels of stress or anxiety than usual, it might be worth a try.
Perhaps you’d like to learn a little bit more about how to let go and relax and deal with stress? We have seven tips to help you. Is there anything you’d like to add, have we missed anything? If you’re interested in sharing your experiences with us or writing a guest post for us, send us an email via firstname.lastname@example.org!
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