In 2012, the American Psychological Association (APA) published an article offering an overview of the research into mindfulness meditation. The evidence supports what many mindfulness practitioners have long known – mindfulness is beneficial to our health and wellbeing.
What are the benefits?
Mindfulness improves concentration, working memory and information processing by enhancing attention and general awareness. Additionally, it has been shown to promote greater empathy and compassion. The evidence also suggests wider health benefits including increased immune functioning, better sleep, improvement to wellbeing and a reduction in psychological distress. In particular, research has identified the following benefits:
Wikipedia defines rumination as “compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress” (from a paper by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema et al, 2008) which interferes with our ability to focus on other things and is a frequent feature of depression. Several studies have shown that mindfulness meditation and practice reduces rumination. In one study, for example, participants in a 10-day mindfulness meditation retreat experienced “fewer depressive symptoms and less rumination compared with the control group” (Chambers et al, 2008).
Stress is a common feature in most people’s lives and is not, itself, harmful to our health. But when stress becomes overwhelming and debilitating it threatens our wellbeing and can lead to more serious problems. Many studies have shown that practicing mindfulness reduces stress. An analysis of 39 such studies concluded that “mindfulness-based therapy may be useful in altering affective and cognitive processes” (Hoffman et al, 2010), findings consistent with evidence that mindfulness increases positive affect and decreases anxiety and negativity.
The ability to focus our attention on a selected subject or task is critical to the effectiveness of our efforts. Evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation and practice increases focus and attention. In a study to examine how mindfulness affected the ability to focus attention, and suppress distracting information, researchers found that experienced mindfulness practitioners performed significantly better on all measures of attention compared with the control group that had no meditation experience (Moore and Malinowski, 2009).
Less emotional reactivity
It is said that it’s not what happens to us that matters but how we respond – or react – to what happens. Over-reaction to everyday events often leads to distress. Research indicates that practising mindfulness decreases emotional reactivity. A study of practitioners showed that mindfulness meditation practice helped them “disengage from emotionally upsetting pictures and enabled them to focus better” compared with people who saw the pictures but did not meditate (Ortner et al, 2007).
More cognitive flexibility
Wikipedia refers to cognitive flexibility as “the mental ability to adjust thinking or attention in response to changing goals and/or stimuli”. This ability enables us to respond appropriately to situations. Research suggests that in addition to helping people become less reactive, mindfulness meditation may also give them greater cognitive flexibility by activating a region of the brain associated with more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations (Cahn & Polich, 2006; Davidson et al, 2003).
What are the benefits of mindfulness? by Daphne M. Davis, PhD and Jeffrey A. Hayes, PhD. Published by the American Psychological Association, July/August 2012.