What Is Mindfulness Meditation?
As April comes to a close, we raised our collective awareness of Autism, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse Prevention here in the United States. April is also Stress Awareness month, and it could certainly be said of all awareness months, that we shouldn’t limit our acknowledgment of these causes or issues to just one month. And of the many things in our lives that contribute to or compromise our well-being, stress is an incredibly pervasive and potent adversary. That is why I feel no hesitation or regret from piling on to the mountain of articles, blog posts, and books that make the case for mindfulness meditation as an effective tool to mitigate stress. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry, because you are in good company. Here in the U.S. only about 6% of the population practices meditation according to the 2012 NHIS Survey. Mediation is on the rise, and for good reason.
Couples who practice mindfulness have a higher ability to identify their emotions and communicate them to their partner in more functional ways that de-escalate conflict. These couples are simply less angry and less anxious.
Mindfulness practice is beneficial for both therapy clients and therapists. I actually didn’t begin to practice mindfulness until I began training as a psychotherapist. Research on mindfulness mediation has revealed its benefits:
- Reduced rumination
- Boosts to working memory
- Improved focus
- Less emotional reactivity
- Increased cognitive flexibility
- Enhanced self-insight, morality, intuition, and fear modulation
- Reduced stress
- Higher relationship satisfaction
Source: APA Journal Psychotherapy 2011, Vol. 48, No. 2, 198 –208
While there are many good reasons to get into the practice of mindfulness mediation, for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on how it strengthens our ability to reduce stress.
How Does the Practice of Mindfulness Meditation Protect Us from Stress?
Mindfulness is the practice of self-observation. When glance at the phenomena of consciousness, the thoughts, sights, sounds, and other body sensations that are experienced within us, we are neurologically disengaging automatic pathways that would otherwise disrupt our present moment input. Have you ever been lost in thought? Yea, that’s the stuff I’m talking about here. When we are mindful, we are no longer lost in thought, but rather clearly aware of any present sensations that arise in consciousness. And this way of thinking helps us to be less emotionally reactive, and respond to negative situations with a faster recovery to our baseline calm state of being.
Regular mindfulness practice (*after just 8 weeks) can alter the ways in which emotions are processed in the brain. Many mindfulness practitioners have quite literally changed the neural architecture of their brains, and this allows them to cope with stress in more adaptive ways. As a marriage and family therapist, this is particularly evident to me with the couples I treat in therapy. Relationship stress is simply a subcategory of overall stress. Couples who practice mindfulness have a higher ability to identify their emotions and communicate them to their partner in more functional ways that de-escalate conflict. These couples are simply less angry and less anxious.*Premed and med students reported less anxiety and depression symptoms after taking an 8-week mindfulness based stress reduction training compared to the control group.
Staying in the Present Moment
When we are focused on the present, we can’t also be focused on the past. Mindfulness works because it shuts down brain activity associated with rumination. It shuts off activity associated with thinking about possible realities that haven’t happened yet. Practicing mindfulness for just 10 minutes a day can have profound beneficial effects on your life. There are many guided mediations out there, videos on YouTube, and apps that you can download on your device that make it easy to practice mindfulness wherever you are. If you decide to begin, or start again with your mindfulness practice, I suggest you do it at the same time of day each day. And it’s even more likely to become a habit that sticks if you do it in the same place, at the same time, each day. One unforeseen benefit I have personally experienced, in addition to stress reduction, is that knowing how to be mindful affords me the ability to never feel boredom again. That alone is life changing.
Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.