What is mindfulness and how does it help mental health?

Centre for Mindfulness Studies 2 minute read October 10, 2020
calm photo of a woman meditating


What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to whatever is happening in our lives, inside and out, in the present moment. When we connect with the present, we become aware of habitual patterns of thought, emotion and behaviour.

With mindfulness, we train ourselves to pay close attention to what is going on in the present moment; just as it is. Much of our suffering is a result of regrets about the past, worries about the future or judgments about the present. When we are mindful we become aware of and explore these habitual thought patterns and ways of reacting. This attitude of curiosity allows us to create new and healthier ways of responding to life’s challenges.

Mindfulness is not a religion—anyone, with any belief system, can enjoy its benefits, many of which are based on research.

How is mindfulness practiced?

Mindfulness practice, like physical exercise, requires repetition and time to produce noticeable changes in everyday life. Over time, thanks to neuroplasticity, practicing mindfulness can change the physical structure of one’s brain.

Mindfulness is practiced mainly through consciously focusing one’s attention on a particular object, such as the breath, body, emotions, thoughts, or sounds, or by bringing open and receptive attention to the coming and going of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.

The opposite of mindfulness is forgetfulness, wandering attention, or autopilot. A Harvard study found people’s minds are wandering an average of 47% of the time, and that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

At some point, we notice or wake up to the fact that our attention has moved into such places as daydreaming, our to-do list or a recent argument with a friend. This is the crucial moment when one crosses over from automatic pilot to mindful awareness. Only then can we bring our attention back to our intended object of focus. This act of returning our attention, over and over again, is the central practice, the thing that builds our mindfulness.

Is there evidence supporting the benefits of mindfulness?

The beneficial effects of meditation and mindfulness-based therapies are supported by a growing body of evidence. Over two decades of clinical research has shown that it can benefit people suffering from anxiety, recurrent depression, chronic pain, substance abuse and other conditions. Benefits include:

  • Stress reduction
  • Reduced rumination
  • Decreased negative affect (e.g. depression, anxiety)
  • Less emotional reactivity/more effective emotion regulation
  • Increased focus
  • More cognitive flexibility
  • Improved working memory

If you’re looking for an introduction to mindfulness, consider taking one of our online 8-week evidence-based programs. For more information on our personal programs, and to choose the one right for you, visit: https://www.mindfulnessstudies.com/personal/