By: Julia D’ Addurno
Mindfulness meditation has garnered a lot of attention in recent years due to all the empirical research that has found the practice has numerous health advantages. Mindfulness practice has been linked to many neurological benefits like changes in grey matter volume and increases in cortical thickness in the hippocampus (Ludets, Cherbuin and Kurth, 2015). These changes in the brain can lead to increased learning aptitudes and memory capacity, improvements in attention and concentration, as well as strengthened areas of the brain associated with emotion regulation and self-referential processing. Mindfulness has been found to preserve an aging brain and protect it from certain cognitive decline as well. Other cognitive domains such as executive function, attention, processing speed, overall cognitive resilience and even creativity have also been considered to be the result of mindfulness practice (Luders et al., 2015). Additionally, regular practice could lead to decreases in the brain cell volume in the amygdala, the area of the brain that controls fear anxiety and stress (Elbeth and Sedlmeier, 2012).
Meditation, therefore, has been implicated in reduced stress, anxiety, and can significantly decrease levels of depression and improve overall well-being. Part of the reason for these benefits is that mindfulness decreases activity in the brain network that controls mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts. This brain system, known as the default mode network, is what is active when people are not thinking about anything particular, but the mind is free and wandering through multiple thoughts at once (Elberth and Sedlmeier, 2012). All of our brains have this function and everyone’s mind wanders. However, mind-wandering is associated with reduced happiness as it can lead to rumination and worrying. Typically, worrisome thoughts concern future and past events which can lead people to worry and ruminate in an endless unproductive cycle. Mindfulness meditation is an active form of brain training that works to help participants snap out of these thought patterns and learn to let their worrisome thoughts go. Meditation not only changes the brain but these changes can lead to further altered perception and changes in one’s feelings.
Meditation often has mixed reviews. Many people have the perception that mindfulness requires sitting in a space for 15 minutes to an hour, engaging in minimal movement and clearing the mind, which doesn’t appeal to everyone. Mindfulness takes continuous effort, especially in its initial stages while beginning and building your practice. Active cognitive efforts are required in order to obtain results. In comparison to physical exercise where you simply need to show up, move and get your heart pumping to receive the physiological benefits of it, meditation requires you to be present and focused on the breath. You can get through physical exercise on “autopilot” and still obtain the benefits as long as you are going through the motions. With mindfulness, there's a certain amount of concentration and attention that's needed. It does take time and your first few sessions will most likely be more difficult as you learn how to focus your attention but it gets increasingly easier. What deters a lot of people from meditating is that they believe they simply aren’t good at it because they are unable to “clear” their mind and stop intrusive thoughts. What many people don’t realize, and are surprised to learn about the practice, is that even the most frequent and seasoned meditators also have intrusive thoughts that pop into their head and make it hard for them to concentrate. The difference is that these people learn through their practice that they can let those thoughts go and continue to find their breath by releasing their thoughts and shift attention back to their breath.
No one is able to completely clear their mind. Our minds are constantly wandering and our thoughts pop up randomly and frequently. All people may struggle to control their thoughts but beginning meditators may find it discouraging when they can’t relieve themselves of these thoughts. The goal is to learn how to pay attention to thoughts, become aware and acknowledge them, and then let them go and refrain from reacting to them. This can lead to greater well-being because thoughts are no longer taking control over you. Participants gain the ability to concentrate better, relieve stress and gain clarity and insight (Elberth and Sedlmeier, 2012).
A recent interesting finding on mindfulness practice using phone applications concluded that daily mindfulness practice should not be recommended (Clarke and Draper, 2019). Although daily mindfulness has been recommended previously, this study found intermittent practice (a few times a week) may be even more effective. Since finding the time daily could be difficult for some people, intermittent practice could be more appealing to some. Just like any type of intervention or exercise, mindfulness isn’t for everyone and not all people will find it helpful. However, understanding all the amazing neurological and mental health benefits of mindfulness, and learning more about the process and purpose, may attract more people to begin practicing and sustain a more regular practice.
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Clarke, J., & Draper, S. (2019). Intermittent mindfulness practice can be beneficial, and daily practice can be harmful. An in depth, mixed methods study of the “Calm” app’s (mostly positive) effects. Internet Interventions, 100293. doi:10.1016/j.invent.2019.100293
Eberth, J., & Sedlmeier, P. (2012). The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation: A Meta-Analysis. Mindfulness, 3(3), 174–189. doi:10.1007/s12671-012-0101-x
Luders, E., Cherbuin, N., & Kurth, F. (2015). Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01551