The mental health benefits of mindfulness are important for everyone to understand. Mindfulness is a practice that involves conscious awareness of our environment, emotions, and behaviors. Mindfulness means being present in the moment. It means being cognizant of the internal and external world without being judgmental or reactive.
So often in life, people act as though they are on “autopilot.” We follow our daily routines without pausing to recognize what we are actually doing. Have you ever driven to work, then realized you can’t recall any part of the drive? Have you mindlessly snacked while watching TV, barely acknowledging the food that you’re consuming? These are examples of so-called autopilot behaviors.
Mindfulness is the opposite of this.
In addition to promoting awareness, mindfulness also encourages us to view ourselves and the world around us with kindness and curiosity. When we experience painful thoughts or negative emotions, mindfulness allows us to acknowledge these feelings instead of attempting to avoid or hide from them.
Rather than making snap judgements and taking reflexive action, mindfulness asks us to consider both the rationale and the potential effects of our behaviors first. Thus, when we do act, we are doing so with purpose and intention.
Mental Health Therapy and Mindfulness
Therapists have incorporated mindfulness principles and practices into several therapeutic modalities in recent years.
Therapeutic Modes and Mindfulness
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
- Holistic therapies such as meditation and yoga
These and other mindfulness-based therapies are commonly used to treat people who have a variety of mental and behavioral health disorders.
Mindfulness and Specific Mental Health Disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Substance use disorders (addictions)
Anecdotal evidence suggests meditation and other aspects of mindfulness offer a range of emotional and psychological benefits. Practitioners report improved mood, reduced stress, and better overall quality of life.
In recent years, research to verify these claims increased. This increase includes studies to determine whether mindfulness leads to measurable improvements in people who experience significant disruption caused by mental health symptoms.
According to an April 2018 article in the Harvard Gazette, the number of randomized controlled trials on the mental health benefits of mindfulness rose dramatically in the past decade:
- 1995-1997: 1 study published.
- 2004-2006: 11 studies published.
- 2013-2016: 216 studies published
The article reported some studies demonstrated mindfulness meditation programs can ease symptoms of anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. However, research is still needed to confirm and build on these initial findings.
How Mindfulness Changes the Brain
The subtitle of the Harvard Gazette article we refer to above reported that mindfulness “seems to change the brain in depressed patients.”
This article reported on research conducted by Gaëlle Desbordes, a researcher affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Desbordes uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess how meditation affects the brain. In addition to producing photographs of the brain, fMRIs also record brain activity.
In 2012, Desbordes conducted a two-month study that tracked meditation-related changes in the amygdala. The amygdala is the region of the brain associated with emotion. Her study was the first to reveal these changes, which originally occurred when subjects were meditating, persisted after meditation sessions ended.
The year before Desbordes published her findings, a separate study in the journal Psychiatry Research associated mindfulness practices with increased grey matter density in several areas of the brain.
This study, which also involved fMRIs, assessed 16 adults who participated in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The subjects underwent scans two weeks prior to the start of the program and two weeks after completion,
The researchers reported that the post-program fMRIs revealed “significant increases in grey matter concentration” in the following areas:
- Posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)
- Tempo-parietal junction (TPJ)
- Lateral cerebellum
The fMRIs also showed increased grey matter in the brainstem and the left hippocampus. No brain areas showed decreased grey matter following the eight-week mindfulness program.
The researchers noted that grey matter increases may lead to several mental health-related improvements.
Gray Matter Increase and Mental Health Benefits
- Changes in the hippocampus may improve a person’s ability to regulate emotional responses.
- Increased grey matter in the hippocampus may also be a protective factor against major depressive disorder and stress-related psychopathology.
- A functional tempo-parietal junction is related to healthy social cognition, increased capacity for compassion, and diminished risk of dissociative experiences.
- A healthy posterior cingulate cortex has been linked with vital cognitive skills such as recalling the past, planning for the future, and considering the viewpoints of others.
- Improvements in the lateral cerebellum could contribute to increases in the “speed, capacity, consistency, and appropriateness of cognitive and emotional processes.”
“Demonstrating morphological increases in regions associated with mental health, the data presented here suggest a plausible underlying neural mechanism,” the researchers wrote, “namely, that such increases represent enduring changes in brain structure that could support improved mental functioning.”
How Mindfulness Impacts Symptoms & Behaviors
Evidence from fMRI studies and other research efforts links mindfulness with both functional and structural changes in the brain. But how do these changes affect how people feel and act? If the goal of mental healthcare is to reduce distress and promote healthier behaviors, how can we be sure that including mindfulness-based therapies and activities will help people achieve these objectives?
Multiple studies have cited beneficial effects of mindfulness meditation on mental health symptoms:
A small study in Australia found that a brief mindfulness exercise during a routine visit to a physician’s office led to reduced anxiety among patients in the early stages of psychosis. When assessed via the Profile of Mood States (POMS) questionnaire, the mean anxiety score among patients who participated in the mindfulness exercise dropped from 4.6 to 1.7.
A study involving both English- and Spanish-speaking adults found that six weeks of mindful awareness practices were more effective than six weeks of health education sessions at alleviating symptoms of depression. Similar levels of improvement were noted among individuals from both language groups. All subjects were assessed via the Beck Depression Inventory.
A 2017 study at UCLA reported that a six-week mindful intervention led to decreased depression symptoms among young women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The severity of the subjects’ symptoms were assessed using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies-Depression (CESD) scale.
A 2014 study in the journal Psychology & Health determined that mindful awareness practices led to a reduction in perceived stress levels and overall anxiety among a group of pregnant women who had reported high levels of both anxiety and stress prior to participating in the mindfulness-based interventions.
One attempt to quantify the impact of mindfulness on behavior was published in the April 2020 edition of the journal Scientific Reports. This study, which involved 326 subjects, used a donation-based exercise to determine if the practice of mindfulness promotes altruism.
Features of this study included the following:
- The study’s subjects were randomly assigned to view either a mindfulness meditation practice video or an instructional video about drawing.
- After viewing the video, the subjects were asked a few questions about it, told they would be receiving a small amount of money for participating in the study, and asked if they would like to make a charitable donation to the United Way.
- The donations from the subjects who watched the mindfulness meditation video were 2.61 times higher than the amount donated by those who watched the drawing video.
“The current findings are the first to identify a relation between mindfulness meditation and cooperation,” the researchers wrote. “The results imply potential great societal benefits.”