By Courtney Suciu
Everywhere you look these days, “mindfulness” is being touted as a kind of cure-all. Human resource departments are embracing the practice to increase productivity and bolster employee morale. Schools are introducing it to children to improve academic focus and encourage conflict resolution. And those of us prone to bouts of anxiety and depression encounter claims (coming from wellness blogs, self-help books, mobile apps and even our therapists) that mindfulness techniques can alleviate our symptoms.
So, is there any substance behind this mania? Or is “mindfulness” a modern snake oil that fails to live up to the health and happiness it promises?
Let’s take a closer look at what we mean when we talk about “mindfulness,” what the research says about benefits associated with the practice and explore a mindfulness exercise to try ourselves.
A cynical answer to this question might be “a multimillion-dollar industry” as indicated in the headline of 2014 article from The Times1 of London. The subject of the piece was Andy Puddicombe, the honey-voiced, former Buddhist monk (with a degree in circus arts) who founded the popular meditation app “Headspace.” The app launched in 2012 when suddenly “mindfulness” was everywhere, as The Times writer Polly Vernon noted:
The US Marine Corps, faced with record suicide rates, runs a pilot project that builds mindfulness into basic training. Corporations have begun offering mindfulness training as part of their employment packages, to increase concentration levels and reduce the time employees take off on stress-related sick leave. Google has a dedicated mindfulness training camp in California; employees get access to a seven-week training course.
Unsurprisingly, in the midst of this mindfulness mania, the app was downloaded more than a million times around the world within the first 18 months, and it became the darling of such celebrities as Gwyneth Paltrow and Emma Watson.
If this all sounds a like a lot of fuss over a hot new trend, Puddicombe explained in a March 2019 piece for the Boston Globe2 why mindfulness is more than just the latest fad. “For a practice that's been around for close to 3,000 years, it must be the longest-running fad of all time,” he wrote, referring to the traditional Buddhist roots of mindfulness meditation.
“Mindfulness is, unfortunately, often presented as some kind of self-help, quick-fix treatment for our increasingly stressful lifestyles,” he continued.
Rather, Putticombe advocates for an ongoing mindfulness practice that “simply means to be present, aware, undistracted, and not lost in thought. Rather than fumbling through life's daily highs and lows in the dark, [mindfulness] is the equivalent of turning on the light and seeing everything more clearly.”
He claimed there is value in “recognizing that our experience of life is defined by our perception —we chase or hold on to things that we think make us happy, while running away from anything we believe makes us unhappy.”
That habitual way of thinking “creates a never-ending cycle of hope and fear, leaving us exhausted, stressed, and no closer to the peace of mind we seek,” he continued. “So, it's worth considering how to step out of that cycle.”
Mindfulness, according to proponents, is a way to do that. But does it actually work?
In a review published in the journal Psychotherapy3, Daphne Davis and Jeffrey Hayes asked, “Is mindfulness as good as advertised?” To answer this question, the authors examined empirical evidence put forth in research literature on the advantages of mindfulness-based interventions in psychotherapy.
Defining mindfulness as “a moment by moment awareness of one’s experience without judgement,” Davis and Hayes noted that while such a state “might be promoted by certain practices or activities (e.g. meditation) it is not equivalent or synonymous with them.” This is an important distinction because, as the authors pointed out, different kinds of meditation styles (such as concentration, which might involve, for example, focusing on a mantra) “elicit different brain activity patterns.”
“Mindfulness meditation more than concentrative forms of mediation has been shown to stimulate the middle prefrontal brain associated with both self-observation and metacognition, and foster specific attentional mechanisms,” they explained.
This means mindfulness helps practitioners become aware of their own thought process which researchers found, according to Davis and Hayes, significantly decreases rumination, a repetitive cycle of negative thinking associated with mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
In addition, Davis and Hayes cited research that demonstrates increased response flexibility in people who practice mindfulness meditation. Because mindfulness promotes self-observation, those individuals were able to disengage from automatic reactions that developed from prior experiences in stressful and negative situations. Habitual thought patterns forged in the brain’s neural pathways were reconfigured, resulting in more thoughtful and intentional reactions to emotional triggers.
These benefits extend into interpersonal relationships, researchers found. “People with higher trait mindfulness reported less emotional stress in response to relationship conflict and entered conflict discussion with less anger and anxiety,” the authors noted.
Evidence also supports claims that mindfulness meditation supports improvements in cognitive function, according to Davis and Hayes. These gains include “increased processing speed, decreased task effort and having few thoughts unrelated to the task at hand.
Therapists themselves can benefit from the implications of this research, they wrote: “[Due] to increased attentional skills and increased ability to mange distractions, therapists who practice mindfulness meditation may have an increased ability to be present for their clients.
In the video Mindfulness for Millennials4, social worker Emily Dailey explained how life in the digital age contributes to rising levels of “anxiety, depression, OCD, addictions and a loss of connections with ourselves, and our lives.”
“We are information junkies,” she said, “and our brains are definitely full.”
Mindfulness meditation can give our brains a rest from taking in new information, worrying, working or trying to accomplish anything, resulting in the benefits explored in the section above. But what do we need to get started?
In a therapy session with Melissa, a young woman who suffers from anxiety, Dailey led a mindfulness exercise to help her client “relate differently to [her] thoughts and emotions.”
The first step was grounding the body, in this case with feet flat on the floor. “This is an awareness exercise,” Dailey explained, and noticing how it feels physically to be grounded shifts attention to the body rather than “the thinking mind.”
Next, Dailey had her client close her eyes and relax while shifting her awareness to the breath coming in and out of her body. Dailey then instructed:
Begin to imagine a ship in the middle of the ocean and see a big strong anchor that goes from the ship down into the water and deep into the ocean floor. This anchor keeps the ship safe and secure. No matter what the ocean waters are like above. Imagine your breath as a kind of anchor. As you exhale slowly, drop your anchor and see it take hold on the floor beneath you.
All thoughts to enter the mind were to come and go while Melissa’s attention remained grounded by the breath rather flitting around such distractions as what to have for dinner, who liked an Instagram photo, or how to resolve a conflict at work.
Dailey continued to instruct Melissa to recall a difficult emotional experience, such as a recent disappointment or frustration. The feeling is envisioned as rough and stormy surface waters. But instead of reacting to the stormy emotions, Dailey encouraged her client to find a sense of calm in her grounded breath. “And simply be with whatever feeling is there without needing to change it or make it go away.”
As a result, Dailey explained, “practicing mindfulness really helps us to be able to gain a little bit of distance between our thoughts and emotions.” And in that space that opens between, we can give our minds a much-needed rest.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu