How Mindfulness Can Improve Your Overall Mental Health

How mindfulness benefits mental health?

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Mindfulness has the capacity to make your life ten times better and healthier, but not a lot of people take it seriously and dismiss it.

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.

 

Before You Dismiss Mindfulness…

Research shows mindfulness offers benefits for mental health.

What comes to mind when you think of mindfulness? For many, it’s an image of a yogi, a Buddha, or a wellness influencer. Maybe it’s a phone app or a fitness outlet.

For me, it’s science.

Mindfulness has become a buzzword synonymous with self-care and meditation, promising wide-ranging benefits from reducing stress to increasing happiness.

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It’s now a multi-million-dollar business, with thousands of apps touting the benefits of mindfulness in one way or another. And among all this buzz, I’ve seen a few articles that push back on mindfulness. Often, they’re not wrong to question the claims some apps have made. But as a neuroscientist and physician, I’ve been impressed with the growing amount of evidence in support of the approach.

Like other “hot” topics, mindfulness has been hijacked by hype and misunderstanding. For example, many think that the goal of mindfulness is to clear your head of all thoughts. That’s a hard thing to do, and if you’ve tried mindfulness under that assumption, you’re destined for disappointment.

Mindfulness
Mindfulness

 

Mindfulness is really about paying careful attention to our thoughts and behaviors, not trying to suppress them. When we do this, mindfulness helps us clearly see the costs and benefits of any given situation.

It can, for instance, help us overcome cravings and addictions of all kinds. In one pilot study, we found that an evidence-based mindfulness training led to a 48 percent reduction in anxiety among participants after completing 28 core modules of the program. And we’ve seen this success not only with anxiety, but also with overeating, smoking, social media use, and more.

Why might mindfulness be so effective? It starts with neuroscience. Our brains are wired based on the most evolutionarily conserved learning processes—the reward-based learning system. The system is based on a trigger, behavior, and reward.

Let’s take food as an example: When we get hungry (trigger), we look for food (behavior), and then we eat and feel satisfied (reward). After a while, however, the reward becomes so enticing that we no longer eat only when we’re hungry, but also when we’re bored or stressed or tired. Before you know it, overeating becomes a habit that can be incredibly difficult to break.

 

Mindfulness is the tool we have been given to tap into this system to “hack” and rewire our brains so that we can address unwanted behaviors and overcome even the most difficult habits. When we pay attention to all aspects of our experience, we start to notice the push and pull of cravings in particular. Only then can we really see cravings for what they truly are: simple thoughts and feelings.

One of my favorite examples that shows just how powerful mindfulness can be is smoking cessation. In one study in my lab, smokers were given mindfulness training: They were taught breath awareness and how to pay attention to habit triggers and actions. In response, these smokers reported being more aware of why they smoked, what behaviors to substitute for smoking, and how disgusting cigarette smoke smelled and tasted when they just paid attention.

 

We found that this mindfulness-based training was five times more effective than the gold standard treatment in helping people quit smoking. Mindfulness worked: The science speaks for itself.

Mindfulness isn’t difficult. We just need to remember to do it.

But not all mindfulness prescriptions are created equal.

With all the hype, it’s difficult for individuals and institutions to distinguish real data from wishful thinking. A recent study found that while scientific language is often used to describe all the thousands of mental health apps, less than 3 percent cite direct evidence associated with the app itself.

While many have found that evidence-based digital therapeutics using mindfulness can make real and lasting changes in people’s lives, it’s important that consumers carefully choose the program they engage with.

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Judson Brewer M.D., Ph.D.
Jud Brewer MD Ph.D. is a thought leader in the field of habit change, having combined over 20 years of experience with mindfulness training with his scientific research therein. He is the Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center and associate professor in Behavioral and Social Sciences and Psychiatry at the Schools of Public Health & Medicine at Brown University. He also is a research affiliate at MIT. A psychiatrist and internationally known expert in mindfulness training for addictions, Brewer has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including both in-person and app-based treatments for smoking, emotional eating, and anxiety. He has also studied the underlying neural mechanisms of mindfulness using standard and real-time fMRI and EEG neurofeedback. He has trained US Olympic athletes and coaches, foreign government ministers, and his work has been featured on 60 Minutes, TED (4th most viewed talk of 2016, with 14+ Million views), Time magazine (top 100 new health discoveries of 2013), Forbes, BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera (documentary about his research), Businessweek and others. Dr. Brewer founded MindSciences to move his discoveries of clinical evidence behind mindfulness for anxiety, eating, smoking and other behavior change into the hands of consumers (see for more information). He is the author of The Craving Mind: from cigarettes to smartphones to love, why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017). Follow him on twitter @judbrewer.
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