What Is Mindfulness—and How Can It Help You?
The Zen-sounding buzzword midnfulness is everywhere these days, from Instagram hashtags and coffee mugs to medical schools and firefighter training.
But what is the definition of mindfulness, exactly? And why is practicing mindfulness good for you? We asked experts to explain what the term means and how you can incorporate it into your life.
What is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness is a way of moving your focus and attention into the present moment without judgment,” explains Lara E. Fielding, PsyD, a psychologist in Beverly Hills, California who specializes in mindfulness-based therapies and is the author of Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-Up.
Being mindful is more important and trickier than it sounds. “As humans, our minds are wired to time-travel,” Fielding tells Health. “We can imagine future outcomes and also go backward in time to remember, and try not to repeat, past mistakes.”
These are great abilities to have, sure, but “our mind can get stuck on both of these roads,” says Fielding. “Just like your car can get stuck in the mud.”
Practicing mindfulness gets you back on the present track, and it holds your mind there.
While you may think that sounds inefficient—don’t you have a million other things to think about?—“research shows we spend 47% of our day distracted and thinking about things other than where we are,” says Fielding. “Thinking too much about the future causes anxiety, worry, and stress. People who time-travel to the past tends toward depression.”
What to know about mindfulness
First, it's not really a new trend. “Mindfulness has been practiced in the East for centuries and was systematically used in the West in the mid 1970s to help people with chronic pain,” Mónica M. Alzate, PhD, assistant professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, tells Health.
There’s proof it works, too. “After several decades of research, we now know that the continuous practice of mindfulness affects changes in the brain areas responsible for emotional regulation, memory, concentration, and learning,” says Alzate. “It also decreases stimulus in the amygdala where responses of stress, fear, and anxiety are formed.”
Mindfulness itself is not the same as meditation, though some people think that practicing mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are synonyms. Confusing mindfulness with visualization and relaxation is common, too. “Mindfulness is not a relaxation technique,” says Fielding. “It’s not spacing out, it’s not just taking a break, it’s not self-soothing. It’s simply a cognitive skill.” In fact, she adds, “you can be mindful and uncomfortable.”
To practice it, you don’t have to sit like a monk or be in any special position. “People can benefit from infusing mindfulness practices into their daily routine: from taking a shower, how they drive, to how they talk or play with their children,” Alzate says. While you’ll see the most benefit from a regular, formal practice, “you can start with techniques that are weaved throughout your day,” she adds.
How to practice mindfulness
There’s more than one way to practice mindfulness training, so if you try one exercise and it doesn’t resonate with you, don’t give up. “Be open to learning and practicing different techniques,” Alzate says.
If you’re a beginner, Alzate recommends trying one of these:
Five senses exercise. Decide which of your senses you want to focus on for five minutes. For instance, if you choose “sight,” you’ll focus on five objects around you that you’ve never paid attention to before. Choose “hearing,” and you’ll hone in on five distinct sounds. You can do this exercise while practicing abdominal, or diaphragmatic, breathing, which helps your body relax. Inhale slowly through your nose, allowing both your chest and lower belly to rise. Exhale, and repeat.
Body scan exercise. Close your eyes and scan how your body feels, starting from the crown of your head all the way to your toes. Long, slow exhales through your nose will help you relax you more. You can take 5 minutes to do this exercise, or as long as half an hour.
Get the most out of mindfulness
As you practice clearing your head, remember these pointers:
Actually do the practice. “We can read, listen to books, and watch videos about mindfulness all day long, but that’s not going to help if we don’t actually practice it,” Alzate says. And don’t save these exercises only for times of stress. This training can help your brain get used to how you’ll react in moments of high pressure, she explains. (Plus, who learns well in times of stress?)
Go easy on yourself. One of the principles of mindfulness is compassion. “This means we won’t judge ourselves when we don’t practice as we intended to, or as often, or as long,” Alzate adds. “Accept that it happened, accept that it may take longer, and try again next time."