The Science Behind Mindfulness

Let’s look at the science behind mindfulness.

Mindfulness is everywhere, from children’s books to every self-care article ever written into existence, it’s a wonder that the word itself hasn’t be branded into every aspect of our everyday. But what exactly is mindfulness? Is it just some hippie logic or is there science behind it? I’ve been reading a lot of parenting and self-improvement works lately and it got me thinking that maybe there was more to this mindfulness than I was giving it credit. Today we’re diving deep into the science behind mindfulness and why it has become one of the favorite buzzwords in the parenting and lifestyle community.

What is Mindfulness?

Before I can dive deep into the why behind mindfulness and the science that supports it, let’s get down to the what? What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is defined as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens” I chose this definition from an article found over at Greater Good Magazine because I love that it encompasses not only the awareness aspect but also the perspective that you’re viewing this awareness. Another great video that can help create a better understanding of exactly what mindfulness it can be found here, in the short animation, we watch as a porcupine gets cut off in traffic and how mindfulness can play a part in how the porcupine reacts. It may sound silly (and it kind of is) but after sitting through numerous videos and sifting through articles loaded with jargon, it seemed a no-brainer to try and pass on the information in a way we can all relate to.

Mindfulness in practice looks different for everyone techniques include meditation, guided imagery, breathing exercises, and really connecting to the senses you’re feeling as you do mundane everyday tasks like washing dishes or folding laundry. Mindfulness is the ability to notice how you’re feeling, sit with that feeling, and letting that feeling set course, without judgment or attempting to rationalize that feeling from past experiences or pretending to know the future. Mindfulness is an emotional regulation skill that allows you to stay grounded, present in the moment, feel your feelings, and not go off on an emotionally charged course of action that you may later regret.

Show Me the Science!

We’ve gone over what mindfulness is in the sense of the definition and broad overview of its practice, and now we’re going to tackle the science behind it all. Alright for starters, I’m starting the research section of this post with an article titled “When Science Meets Mindfulness” which was written in 2018 for the Harvard Gazette. The article goes over the different scientific benefits of mindfulness and how researchers and scientists are working hard to provide more scientific backing to the idea that mindfulness can improve mental health. One aspect of that article that was neat was a portion that showed 2 MRI scans of the same brain, one before a task, and one after, and the utilization of mindfulness techniques learned over an intensive 8-week course was able to show a significant change in the activity of the amygdalae, which is the fight or flight portion of the brain. That to me as a non-scientist was huge! Mindfulness literally has the ability to rework how our fight or flight response kicks in, causing our reactions to not necessarily lean on that fight or flight, rather it gives us the chance to change how we react to stressors and difficult situations, mindfulness is literally reworking our brains!

The next scientific research I found helpful in backing up mindfulness came from an article from Cambridge University that went into detail about how mindfulness practices helped first responders and frontline medical workers during the darkest parts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The article focused on the mindfulness-based stress reduction system that was created by John Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s’ focusing on general mindfulness. The article included how during the pandemic when face to face in-person mental health care wasn’t available, mindfulness practices were, through apps, telehealth, and individual mindfulness practices, mindfulness was an intervention that helped lower the stress and anxiety levels of health care workers during the pandemic with little need for outside resources or in-person treatment.

Other research has shown that mindfulness not only affects one part of the brain as previously mentioned but an article titled “Neural correlates of meditation: a review of structural and functional MRI studies” states that “the available imaging techniques have revealed that rather than impacting specific brain regions, meditation causes structural and functional changes in large-scale brain networks.” This is huge!

I’m not a scientist or a doctor, but the ability to change our brains for the better, and that being backed by actual imaging of real brains was enough to really sell me on the whole mindfulness idea. If you’re like me and want more research without having to dive into the rabbit hole of scholarly articles with words I don’t understand, I suggest checking out this Ted Talk by Dr. Richard J. Davidson, Neuroscientist and all around cool dude who really digs into the science behind mindfulness and how it affects our brains both short and long term.

But what if I’m awful at it?

Now that you’ve seen the science, you’ve done some of your own research, and you’re ready to get a piece of the mindfulness pie. I’m absolutely not an expert but I’ve been doing a ton of research and work on myself when it comes to becoming more mindful and my biggest piece of advice is to find what works for you! I am garbage when it comes to mindful eating, it could be that I’m usually in a rush, or I’m trying to shovel food in on a lunch break, but right off the bat, I knew that wasn’t going to be my thing and that is perfectly fine! There is no gold star for being the most perfect practitioner of mindfulness! Think about yourself as a human and realize what your strengths and weaknesses are when you chose exercises and interventions to help you become more mindful.

Choosing how you become more mindful is up to you, whether it be breathing exercises, taking the time to meditate throughout the day, or going on a walk and focusing on how your foot makes contact with the world below it, find your skillset and do yo’ thang to hone in on your inner calm, feel your feelings, and learn that it is okay to not be okay, it’s all in how we react.

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