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. 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.