5 Health Benefits Of Mindfulness
Long durations in quarantine, social isolation, virus infection fear, confusion from misinformation, lives lost, and economic challenges contribute to pandemic-related stress and increases in poor mental health outcomes.
One report from the Centers for Disease Control found during June 24–30, 2020, U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. Additionally, younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use and elevated suicidal ideation.
Mental health is an important part of overall health and wellbeing. It involves how we think, feel, and act in the world, especially during stress and other life challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have caused mental health issues in people who had no prior history of mental illness and has exacerbated symptoms in those who already had a psychiatric diagnosis.
While this is concerning, establishing a mindfulness practice appears to offer some help. A recent publication describes how mindfulness skills are well-suited to help people engage with uncomfortable, frustrating, and traumatic encounters by staying present in the moment and experiencing them as they are without judgment.
5 Ways Mindfulness Practice Can Help You and Your Mental Health
1. Mindfulness Practice and Meditation Techniques Can Improve Your Attention
Healthy individuals who undergo eight weeks of mindfulness training have been shown to strengthen their selective and executive components of attention – skills that facilitate an ability to flexibly pivot our attention to what is relevant and inhibit distracting thoughts.
Other cross-sectional studies of longer-term practitioners have observed improvements in sustained attention. In general, research has found a dose-dependent relationship between formal meditation experience and attention-related skills, suggesting the more you meditate, the more likely you can focus without distraction.
2. Mindfulness Practice Can Improve Anxiety, Depression, Self-Doubt, Other Negative Feelings
When looking at how to help anxiety, having a regular mindfulness practice has been shown to decrease the tendency to have intrusive negative thoughts that contribute to distraction and emotion dysregulation.
Other reports have suggested that mindfulness practice enhances the ability to attenuate ruminative thinking. This, in part, appears to be supported by the role of mindfulness in supporting higher-order attentional networks in the brain that promote increased efficiency of information processing and decreased ‘stickiness’ in one self-narrative or another.
In essence, mindful awareness decreases the frequency by which we “get caught up in” our experiences rather than stay in the present moment.¹⁵ The reduced focus on the self-narrative through mindfulness practice contributes to promoting mental health and wellbeing.
3. Mindfulness Can Lead to Improved Relationships and the Feeling of Connection
Several studies found a positive relationship between mindfulness and relationship quality. Through continued mindfulness practice, there is evidence for increased social connection and pro-social behaviors and dispositions, like empathy and compassion.
Interestingly, the influence of mindfulness and meditation practices on health and wellbeing is further enhanced by a sense of connection to others and self-compassion. In the face of negative thoughts, self-compassion has emerged as a key component of the mechanism of change afforded by mindfulness training.
Self-compassion is often taught alongside mindfulness and involves cultivating kindness and love for oneself and a strong sense of shared humanity — realizing that our difficulties are part of life that most people also experience.
Mindfulness has been shown to positively and significantly correlate with extraversion and conscientiousness, suggesting you may increase social skills and care in your actions. In one 2016 study, researchers measured mindfulness and the stress hormone cortisol in 88 couples before and after discussing a conflict in their relationship.
Not surprisingly, cortisol levels spiked during the discussion, a sign of high stress. Interestingly, cortisol levels in the most mindful individuals were quicker to return to normal after the conflict ended, suggesting they were keeping their cool and maintaining equanimity – a general sense of emotional balance and rapid recovery from a stressor. This result is echoed in many studies of mindfulness in romantic relationships.
Mindfulness is also linked to better relationships with your kids. Studies have found that mindfulness practice can lessen stress, depression, and anxiety in parents of preschoolers and children with disabilities. Mindful parenting is also linked to more positive behavior in kids. A small neuroimaging study of parents exposed to mindfulness training found changes in activation in an area often related to empathy and emotion regulation (the left anterior insula/inferior frontal gyrus) were specifically associated with the greatest improvement in the parent-child relationship.²²
4. Better Sleep Through Meditation
In general, meditation practice has been found to facilitate relaxation in the body and calm for the busy mind. It can help you fall asleep faster but not necessarily keep you sleeping through the night. That is still good news for meditation and sleep. One study found that meditation can improve insomnia more effectively than exercise.
An earlier study found significant reductions in pre-sleep arousal, sleep effort, and dysfunctional sleep-related thoughts. Meditation practices are also reported to enhance melatonin levels, a naturally occurring hormone released from the pineal gland to signal the body and biological clock to prepare for sleep.
5. Mindfulness Can Help with Grief and Loss
Over 3.4 million people have died throughout the COVID-19 pandemic globally. Grief is associated with intense emotions, cognitive changes, social relationships, and disability alterations.
Mindfulness training in bereaved individuals has been found to provide some relief. One study found mindfulness training significantly improved both executive function and emotion regulation by alleviating emotional interferences on cognitive functions, as well as reducing self-reported anxiety.
Starting your mindfulness practice starts with intention. Go into your new practice with a goal in mind, like less stress, being present in your daily life, or learning how to overcome negative thoughts. If you’re new to mindfulness or meditation, trying a range of types will help you find the meditation guide that speaks to you.
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