THREE SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN BENEFITS OF MINDFULNESS
I was recently watching a rerun of the movie Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, about an out-of-work writer who discovers a top-secret designer drug that bestows him with super-human abilities. The drug allows him to use 100% of his mind and makes him laser-focused and more confident than any person alive.
What if you were offered a pill that you could take once a day that could reduce anxiety and depressed mood, increase your energy levels, and enhance the capacity of your mind to focus and improve decision-making?
Well, a review of the scientific literature for the past 15 years suggests that the psychological equivalent of that pill may exist. You’ve probably heard of it.
It’s called mindfulness.
‘If you change your mind, you can change your life’
– William James
Nothing ‘soft’ about it
I recently met with one of the main contributors to the growing body of scientific literature on mindfulness, Richard Davidson, a leading neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who said “there is nothing soft about this data.”
He refers to a long list of scientific publications documenting the effectiveness of mindfulness in treating both psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as physical outcomes such as chronic pain and stress-related diseases. There’s now more than 500 studies published a year on the effectiveness of mindfulness. Here I will focus on some of the big meta-analyses that summarize large numbers of studies in three areas: stress management, anxiety control and attention and focus.
While moderate levels of stress can enhance performance, excessive or prolonged levels of stress can increase the risk of a range of physical and mental health conditions, as well as decrease performance on a variety of tasks. Most people who practice mindfulness and meditation regularly report feeling less stressed and more emotionally balanced.
According to neuroscientists like Richard Davidson, the stress response is initiated in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for triggering fear and anxiety. A study performed at Stanford University found that an eight-week mindfulness course reduced the reactivity of the amygdala and increased activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex that help regulate emotions, subsequently reducing stress.
An avalanche of recent data suggests that mindfulness practice works to help smooth the body and calm the mind. Mechanisms such as the relaxing mindful breath technique work to increase the activity of the parasympathetic system and is designed to provide you with an effective refuge from stress and anxiety.
One of the specific features associated with stress is the experience of pervasive anxiety. Many professional people I work with frequently describe experiencing anxiety each evening along with an inability to calm themselves down. Many resort to drinking alcohol or watching TV to distract themselves.
Numerous scientific studies have found meditation to be effective for treating anxiety. Researchers in the US reviewed the literature examining how mindfulness had helped with anxiety management across a range of people, from those dealing with cancer to those suffering from social anxiety and eating disorders. They examined scientific studies totalling 1,140 participants and concluded that mindfulness reduced anxiety across a wide range of conditions and that the skills associated with mindfulness could be generalized and applied to deal with stress in general.
Other research includes a recent meta-analysis of 209 studies with a total of 12,145 participants. It concluded that mindfulness practice showed “Large and clinically significant effects in treating anxiety and depression, and the gains were maintained at follow-up.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that, if mindfulness reduces anxiety and depression, it’s also been consistently found to contribute to improving wellbeing, including optimism, empathy, sense of cohesion, self-compassion and overall quality of life.
Attention and Focus
As well as improving health conditions, studies have shown that mindfulness improves the ability of the mind to focus and sustain attention. This leads to improvements in decision-making, executive control and performance at work.
Of course, this finding is of particular interest to organisations that are struggling to tackle issues arising from increased complexity and pressure in the workplace. Not surprisingly, high profile global corporations such as Google and Sky, among many others, have an extensive commitment to providing mindfulness training across the organization.
For the last two years, we’ve been running a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence programme at Sky called “Better Self”. What’s interesting about the “Better Self” programme is that its primary objective is not improving stress-management skills. It’s more about providing leaders with skills to support the development of a high-performing mind. Participants do report feeling calmer, but also report being better able to concentrate for longer periods of time without becoming distracted. These anecdotal reports are supported by a number of randomized controlled trials of mindfulness-based interventions.
Take a breather
Above I’ve summarized, all too briefly, some of the research supporting the benefits of practicing mindfulness. This is only the beginning. If you’re like me, you may wish to explore the data more closely. For a more comprehensive review of the research examining the benefits of mindfulness in the areas of health, education, the workplace and the criminal justice system, I recommend obtaining a copy of the UK government report “Mindful Nation UK”.
If you are looking for practical tips and activities to develop your mindfulness do have a listen to a series of podcasts I have put together, which include a step-by-step guide to the mindful breath technique. They can be found here.
About the Author:
Martyn Newman Ph.D., D.Psych., is a clinical psychologist specialising in Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness. His new book, The Mindfulness Book: Practical Ways to Lead a More Mindful Life, was released in the UK on the 22 September 2016. To order click here.