This Explains It: Answers to Mindfulness Questions

I know I said I would be reporting more on how REM sleep can help regulate emotions, but when I found this, I knew I had to share it with you. So here it is and we’ll get back to REM sleep a little later.

Mindfulness. . .what is it? How does it work? What can it do?

These are common questions that I am asked sometimes with suspicion, as mindfulness has become something of an “in thing” without there being lots of explanation of what it is.

You may have been asked these same questions by your patients when considering whether mindfulness should be a part of treatment. Inner Peace There is no simple answer, though here is some information you may want to share to set the stage – a mindfulness down and dirty fact sheet if you will, provided to us by the labs of Dr. Sara Lazar at Harvard Medical School and Dr. Ulrich Ott in Justus Liebig University in Germany.

To make mindfulness more understandable, these researchers did an exhaustive literature review and have identified four core ways mindfulness works. But, before we get into all of that, let’s start with the basics.

So, what is mindfulness? To cite Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the head honchos in mindfulness research, it is the nonjudgmental attention to experiences in the present moment. And, it typically cultivates in a formal practice such as sitting meditation, walking meditation, or mindful movements.

Okay, now we have an idea of what it is. . . but how does it work?

Back to our research friends from Harvard.

Through this literature review, Lazar and Ott identified four main ways mindfulness works to improve our quality of life:

  • Attention regulation
  • Body awareness
  • Emotion regulation
  • Sense of self

These components synergistically create that sense of calm and wellbeing that mindfulness is known for. Let’s take a closer look at these mechanisms and how they work.

Attention regulation is the ability to focus on an object of awareness. Training the mind to overcome distraction helps you feel less flustered and “all over the place” and more centered.

Next, body awareness contributes to the ability to sense your own emotions and as a bonus, the emotions of others. In order to develop empathy, it’s key to be able to sense how you are feeling.

The third core feature of how mindfulness works is emotion regulation. By allowing feelings and emotions that might normally be avoided, to come up, be expressed, and fade away, mindfulness builds the capacity to bear undesirable feelings and works in a similar way to exposure therapy.

The final element that makes mindfulness work is the change in perspective of self. With practice, mindfulness can lead to a less static definition of one’s self, and the realization that we’re always changing. A more fluid existence can lead to less suffering and more “in the moment” enjoyment.

What’s really exciting about these findings is that they are being proven in neuroscience and brain imaging. For each of the four components of mindfulness, a specific region of the brain is developed through neuroplasticity (the ability for our brains to physically change in response to our thoughts, actions, and environment).

With neuroscience and brain imaging research backing what mindfulness practitioners subjectively report, many are finding that explaining mindfulness to their patients is becoming easier.

I hope this overview of how mindfulness works has given you ideas on how to broach the issue of mindfulness with your patients because truly, mindfulness is a valuable practice that has the potential for healing people’s lives and helping them change.

A wide range of practitioners are using mindfulness and with diverse populations. We put together one such case study of mindfulness being used in the Arctic. Please click here. How do you explain mindfulness to your patients? Please leave a comment below.


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26 Comments

  1. Vivian says:

    There are thousands of blogs that requires comments on them. What is the intention of blog comments? Sent From Blackberry.

  2. Neta Kirby says:

    Thank you Ruth,

    One or two points you have stated so clearly that I will be able to use with parents of children I teach. Sometimes it is hard to explain to parents without then thinking we are doing something outlandish!

  3. Brenda
    Check out “social Thinking” It has become best practice for use with children and young adults with social deficits. It uses the idea of being a “social detective” heavily and is built on the foundation of “thinking about how others are thinking about you” Different than trad’l mindfulness but
    still relying on the same metacognitive basis.

  4. Brenda Stevens says:

    I love mindfulness, didn’t realize I taught myself it when I was younger, till I took a class in it! I believe that the ‘Father’ of modern mindfulness is Sir Author Cannon Doyle! Think of Sherlock Holmes and how he looked at a crime scene…this is how I explain it to people….I read those books a lot when I was a young teen!

  5. Beautifully put, appreciate you taking a moment to explain this because it is becoming a household term!

  6. SHarma says:

    Dear Ruth

    Now it is clear to me thanks

    Shanks

  7. Karl Ray says:

    I like the simple way that your post presents mindfulness meditation. I’m sure I will make use of these specific ideas often in my practice.
    I think that allowing the “experiencing” of feelings is more to the point than “expressing” feelings.

    Thanks for all your good work, bringing these ideas to a broad audience in the healing professions.

  8. I worked in Oregon with families and children who were traumatized usually by abuse, neglect, illness, etc.

    I found mindfulness to be especially helpful when someone needed an immediate sense of control in their lives. Sitting and simply focusing on what you can hear, then what you can see, what you can feel, etc. in a room can give a person a sense of relaxation and hope.

    I have used mindfulness myself throughout my life combined with Yoga so experience can serve the purpose of being genuine and experienced when asked for reactions, time lines, effects on their life. I have experienced others feeling more aware, more open, more flexible, and with these things comes more desire to look at the possibility to change. I emphasize with my clients that making changes toward life rotation at 2 degrees not 180 degrees seems more feasible. I have gotten the same response many times: ” Two degrees, that’s easy, I can do that”. Much to my joy many families have altered entire ways of interaction in the family with mindfulness, 2 percent philosophy, compassion, and my own flexibility and openness which by the way may have something to do with my own practice of mindfulness.

    Thank you for your comments and explanation. Awareness is certainly the first step and you gave it to us.

    Linda Sloat, MS

  9. Robbie Paredes says:

    Dear Ruth,
    I have been a recipient of your NICABM e-mails for about 2 yrs and have throughly enjoyed every bit of educational information on the latest counseling treatments. I have a BFA in Art and am applying for the CEP(Counseling in Educational Psychology)Master’s Program @ New Mexico State University.
    I would like to become an Art Therapist, using Mind,Body,Spirit tools. I am so grateful to have found this web-site, which keeps me in touch with the cutting edge of the counseling field. I have been counseling sponsee’s for the last 20yrs of my 26yrs of sobriety, and have used the 12steps and good sponsors to take me through the enlightenment stages of self-actualization. Have been through two treatment centers for my childhood sexual-abuse and am very grateful to be entering the counseling field at this time. I will be taking a Mindfullness class this semester for the ability to teach this method. And for myself,to stay balanced and focused in order to deal with trauma victims,which is the specialty field I want to work in. From my own life’s experience, and now getting the acedemic creidentials to give back to my community (being incest survivors)the spiritual tools that take you through the healing process.
    I would like to sign up for the next series of lectures on dealing with traumatic events, to further my experience of a more holistic approach to healing life’s trauma’s. If there are any scholorships that I could apply for, I would appreciate the information on what I need to do to apply. I appreciate the e-mails that keep me in touch with your lectures. If you have any suggestions for new prospects, as myself, getting into this field of counseling, I would be grateful for the time and guidance. Vaya Con Dios
    A student from the Southwest, seeking more tools for finding our Truth.
    Sincerely, Robbie Paredes, Las Cruces, New Mexico,88011

  10. Gisèle Cyr says:

    Ruth,

    Thank you. You have a special gift to simplify complexe things. I love your help on the definition of mindfulness and how it works.

    Gisele

  11. prasad says:

    well explained in the best few words
    thanks

  12. RUTH FISHEL says:

    This was wonderful! The talks I heard on your program helped me to write my latest book WRINKLES DON’T HURT, THE JOY OF AGING MINDFULLY.
    I’ve been practising mindfulness for 33 yrs and have been teaching it for around 30 years. My first book is THE JOURNEY WITHIN, A SPIRITUAL PATH TO RECOVERY. TIME FOR JOY talked a lot about mindfulness and my latest book WRINKLES DON’T HURT, THE JOY OF AGING MINDFULLY is full of help about mindfulness and how it can change your life and also the latest scientific studies on neuroplasticity and how mindfulness actually changes our brain and does so much for us! The Magazine for Addiction Professionals has post an article of mine on MINDFULNESS AND ADDICTIONS. You can see it at http://ruthfishel.com/Aging_Mindfully.html

    MANY THANKS FOR ALL YOU DO!!!!! Ruth Fishel

  13. Dave says:

    Mindfulness works deeper and more profound than the Psychological
    stress and strains of life these are just by products. Buddhism has used it to transcend the mundane since the Buddha. The Buddha actually was using this meditation when he gained enlightenment. So dont aim for the moon when using this meditation aim for the stars.. Good luck

  14. Deirdre Fay says:

    Beautiful and concise, Ruth. Good to have the subtle distinctions. Working with trauma has me focus a lot on the attention regulation piece – developing concentration of mind.

  15. Ruth, Thanks for this clear summary of the mechanisms in the effect of mindfulness meditation. As a neuropsychologist doing brain rehabilitation every day I could not have said it better. A simple and clear summary like this is what opens the mind of those who resist what they don’t understand and enables them to move forward. Much appreciating your work.

  16. Jan Fite, Ph.D. says:

    Thank you, Ruth! Mindfulness is indeed finding it’s way into all the professions. Thankfully, into medicine also. I am teaching a class for medical students and nurse practitioners on mind/body skills, including mindfulness at UW. We are also training physicians and other healthcare providers in a separate class. It’s going to transform medicine in years to come, I believe.
    Jan

  17. very much what I have personally found, My most recent post on larryand.blogspot.com discusses what I have found

  18. Marion says:

    Timely! I’m just off to do a TV tapinginterview

  19. James Lew says:

    I recently attended a Psychiatry review for clinicians presented by the Mayo Clinic. A clinical social worker gave a presentation on mindfulness meditation which was informative. A short video recently produced explaining mindfulness for patients was also shown and I thought well done. I think it was produced by the Mayo clinic. You might want to check it out.

  20. AS always Ruth, you provide for us and our clients the best information, ideas and evidene knowledge.The present one easy and clear illustrates mindfulness. THis information is valuable for me for my teachings with other social workers in my study group, my clients, the power presentations I do. Thank you Ruth and Staff you are lawyas ready to be mindfully present for us. Affectionate Rosa

  21. In my new book, Mindfulness and Hypnosis: The Power of Suggestion to Transform Experience (2011, W.W. Norton) , I offer a much broader and more detailed perspective of what makes mindfulness potentially valuable in treatment than that contained in this brief article. In it I describe the powerful role of suggestion in first absorbing then directing the client’s attention (to body awareness, if so desired) by introducing new therapeutic possibilities to focus upon. Focusing attention catalyzes a therapeutic dissociation, well described in the clinical hypnosis literature, which enables clients to separate from their usual thoughts, feelings and other subjective experiences and more readily adopt those suggested by the practitioner (e.g., compassion, acceptance).

    Through the skilled use of suggestion and dissociation, clients can be encouraged to develop a wide variety of experiences, including positive expectancy, greater self-awareness, and an internal locus of control (empowerment and self-regulation).

    Anyone wanting a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of mindfulness and how to create more well tailored interventions employing mindfulness might find the book valuable.

  22. This is hugely practical when I’m giving the MBSR 8 week course…………..While I think Mindfulness is more than the sum of these four elements it’s so good to have clarity about the way it can function.
    Thank You

  23. This is very helpful. I am working on a power point presentation that I will be presenting at UWO Women’s Wellness Conference. I have been spending hours trying to organize my thoughts and ideas on how to present how it works.

  24. noemi says:

    thanks alot.
    it is a very clear’ simple article’ and very importante. together with the eft i use i feel i have more skeels. thanks

  25. susan says:

    Thank you Ruth for such a concise, informative outline of mindfulness. In a few short words you have described what many have taken hours.

  26. Gina says:

    Mahalo for this wonderful post Ruth!
    As a nutritionist working with many people with Eating Disorders I explain Mindfulness form the perspective of the meal (or snack). Bringing the awareness into the body and allowing the feeling to arise (which in many cases is exactly what they were avoiding) remembering the feelings are just that -feelings, they come and they go. With the meal having a beginning a middle and an end the client can begin to accept the awareness and the feelings in small bites so to speak.
    Taking the small meal awareness then to longer settings such as sitting meditation, walking meditation, taiji or chi gong gives the client a new view on their body, mind and the beauty of being aware of both.

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