The science-based benefits of mindfulness

Posted: May 1, 2023 | Category: News

Research says that engaging in mindfulness meditation can reduce chronic pain as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety and can be a building block to a happier mind.

By Susan Wiley, MD, Mindfulness Program Manager, Preferred EAP, and Co-founder, Center for Mindfulness, Lehigh Valley Health Network

With a stronger awareness of mental health during COVID-19, the term “mindfulness” has appeared more often in news stories and social media. This awareness and increasing acceptance are bolstered by a growing body of scientific evidence that is giving mindfulness new credibility and respect beyond the yoga studio to broader practical applications for wellness and adjunctive treatment.

To start a conversation about mindfulness, it’s helpful to understand exactly what it is. Many view mindfulness as a form of meditation, which it can be. Meditation typically refers to a formal, seated intentional practice, where you use focus to increase calmness, concentration, awareness, and emotional balance. Mindfulness is the simple act of paying attention and being present in whatever you’re doing. You can practice mindfulness in a formal way (seated, in a class setting, or on your own, for example), or informally anytime, anywhere.

We often go about our daily lives with our minds wandering away from the activity or conversation at hand to other thoughts, desires, fears, or wishes. When we’re mindful, we are actively involved with all our senses in the present moment. Practicing mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, to the present unfolding moment, with an attitude of curiosity or acceptance. As the mind wanders away, which it will, we gently redirect attention back to observing whatever is happening right now.

An adjunctive treatment modality

Although the results of the efficacy of mindfulness as a treatment modality are varied, a few key areas are notable. When the well-designed, well-run studies are examined, they show promising outcomes for patients with recurrent depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.* A 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that MBSR was associated with a significant reduction in anxiety and distress, and an increase in positive self-statements. The same study measured left-sided activation in several anterior regions of the brain, which is observed during certain forms of positive emotion. It was found that MBSR decreased anxiety and increased this positive affect. The study also showed that left-sided anterior activation is associated with enhanced immune function, and that such improvements remain four months after the intervention.

Studies based on group intervention and training that have focused on depression and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, showed similar positive results especially in reducing relapse. They showed that patients with recurrent depression could be taught to change their relationship to the negative self-talk that is the common internal narrative among people who suffer with this disorder. Through mindfulness they learned to see their thoughts as a constellation of habitual patterns of the mind and not truths. This insight allowed patients to change this negative narrative, which seems to correlate with reductions in relapse in patients with recurrent depression.

Another study, with results published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience in 2015, showed actual changes in brain structure after mindfulness meditation. Positive outcomes included enhanced attention, improved emotion regulation, reduced stress, and improved present-moment awareness. Current research is investigating the relationship between these findings and enhanced emotional resilience with promising results.

Managing chronic pain

Evidence has been found that regular mindfulness practice reduces a person’s pain experience. The work of Fadel Zeidan, PhD, and his colleagues in 2015, which involved brain imaging studies, showed those who received mindfulness as treatment had less activation in the parts of their brains that manage pain messages. Their research also showed that some participants were able to reduce and, sometimes, eliminate, the use pain medications through ongoing daily mindfulness practice, though this was not always the case for all.

The Mayo Clinic provides an explanation of how this occurs: “Mindfulness exercises help people to focus their mind and body in the moment without judgment. Daily mindfulness practice can be helpful for people living with chronic pain because sometimes there are negative or worrisome thoughts about the pain. These thoughts are normal and can affect mood and increase pain. Being able to focus on relaxing the body, noticing the breath and body sensations as being there just as they are, can help manage pain, as well as reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.”**

Practice leads to a happier mind

When discussing the scientific perspective on mindfulness, it’s important to mention Richard Davidson, PhD, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin. Research at the center focuses on the plasticity of the brain and how we can change the brain through training; much of the work there involves practices of mindfulness and compassion meditation. In Dr. Davidson’s Ted Talk*** recorded in January 2019, he identifies four pillars of a healthy mind. These include meta-awareness, or awareness of what the mind is doing; connection and the qualities of compassion, appreciation and kindness which grow from this; insight into the internal narrative of how we speak to ourselves; and purpose. Dr. Davidson and his team suggest we can we change our health by changing our brains, that these changes are durable, and they can help humanity to flourish.

Dr. Davidson often refers to a laboratory study titled, “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” where Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert discovered that an unnervingly large fraction of our thoughts – almost half – are not related to what we’re doing. Beyond that, the study showed that people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not. This  supports Dr. Davidson’s belief that the training that occurs during mindfulness meditation can ultimately lead to greater happiness. He suggests that if we integrate mindfulness into our usual daily activities, as we do with brushing our teeth or eating a meal, we can begin to reduce distractibility and improve awareness. He suggests just three minutes a day of informal mindfulness practice – where we pause the usual habits of the brain, relax our body and mind, pay attention to the unfolding present moment, and notice what is happening inside and outside of ourselves with an attitude of curiosity and investigation – can bring change. And the data increasingly backs up his claim.