We’ll start with some of the benefits you probably already expect from mindfulness, like enhancing your ability to deal with everyday struggles.
Mindfulness is considered a key element to fighting stress. An entire stress reduction program, with decades of experience and tens of thousands of practitioners, is an excellent indication that mindfulness works.
In addition to the outcomes of MBSR, there have been numerous studies backing up the idea that mindfulness reduces stress. One study on present-moment awareness found that it facilitates an adaptive response to daily stressors (Donald, Atkins, Parker, Christie, & Ryan, 2016). Another study by Donald and Atkins (2016) found evidence that mindfulness produced less avoidance and more approach coping as a response to stress than relaxation or self-affirmation controls.
Mindfulness can also help alleviate stress by improving emotion regulation, leading to a better mood and better ability to handle stress (Remmers, Topolinski, & Koole, 2016).
The impact of mindfulness on stress can also be seen in several specific groups, including:
- Those who suffer from restless legs syndrome (Bablas, Yap, Cunnington, Swieca, & Greenwood, 2016).
- Parents (Gouveia, Carona, Canavarro, & Moreira, 2016).
- Healthcare professionals (Burton, Burgess, Dean, Koutsopoulou, & Hugh-Jones, 2017).
- Veterans with depression and/or PTSD (Felleman, Stewart, Simpson, & Heppner, 2016).
- Police officers (Bergman, Christopher, & Bowen, 2016).
For an excellent dive into how mindfulness affects the experience of stress, check out the “Little Book of Mindfulness” by Rebecca Howden and Medibank. I’ll leave it to them to dive into the nitty-gritty, but I’ll describe their explanation of the relaxation response.
Howden and Medibank first list the symptoms of stress, including:
- Constantly feeling anxious and worried
- Feeling irritable, agitated and easily annoyed
- Argumentative and defensive with friends and family
- Restless sleeping
- Low levels of energy, often waking up feeling tired
- Restless and frenetic mind
- Often self-critical and/or critical of others
- Feeling flat and uninspired
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Skin rashes and conditions
- Clenching your jaw muscles and grinding your teeth at night
- Headaches and migraines
When you induce a state of relaxation, which can be achieved through mindfulness, another kind of meditation, or other activities, you can reap the benefits, including:
- Higher brain functioning
- Increased immune function
- Lowered blood pressure
- Lowered heart rate
- Increased awareness
- Increased attention and focus
- Increased clarity in thinking and perception
- Lowered anxiety levels
- Experience of being calm and internally still
- Experience of feeling connected
Gaining these benefits can be as simple as closing your eyes and being silent for a few minutes a day. This is a practice that is so easy, anyone can do it!
Enhanced Ability to Deal with Illness
Perhaps one of the most studied groups in terms of the impacts of mindfulness is cancer patients and others who are suffering from chronic or potentially terminal illness. Mindfulness may not take away their symptoms, but it can help make them more manageable.
For example, the eCALM trial, a therapy program for cancer patients, found that mindfulness can reduce symptoms of stress, enhance spirituality and non-reactivity to experience, facilitate post-traumatic growth, and enhance vigor while relieving fatigue (Zernicke, Campbell, Speca, ruff, Tamagawa, & Carlson, 2016).
Another cancer-specific mindfulness program decreased rumination and worry and increased observing and nonjudging in cancer patients (Labelle, Campbell, Faris, & Carlson, 2015).
An exploration of MBSR for those suffering from chronic low back pain found that mindfulness improved patients’ ability to function independently and less back pain than treatment as usual (Cherkin, Sherman, Balderson, Cook, Anderson, Hawkes, Hansen, & Turner, 2016). Mindfulness can also help patients to focus less on the pain, improving their quality of life (Garland & Howard, 2013).
A study on the use of MBSR with lung cancer patients and their partners showed that mindfulness can instigate a process of positive change in patients and their partners, as well as relieving caregiver burden in partners (van den Hurk, Schellekens, Molema, Speckens, & van der Drift, 2015).
Similarly, a review of MBSR for family caregivers found that mindfulness can decrease stress, depression, and anxiety in those caring for a loved one who is sick (Li, Yuan, & Zhang, 2016).
Facilitation of Recovery
Mindfulness can not only help you deal with a chronic or potentially terminal illness or life-threatening event, it can also help you recover from it.
A study of MBSR in Chinese breast cancer survivors provided evidence that mindfulness can enhance posttraumatic growth and decrease stress and anxiety in cancer patients (Zhang, Zhou, Feng, Fan, Zeng, & Wei, 2017). Another study of young breast cancer survivors showed that women who practiced mindfulness were more likely to experience increased self-kindness, decreased rumination, and decreased stress (Boyle, Stanton, Ganz, Crespi, & Bower, 2017).
Mindfulness, yoga, and meditation have also been found to decrease anxiety and facilitate post-traumatic growth in breast cancer survivors, in addition to the increasing vigor and spirituality (Tamagawa, Speca, Stephen, Lawlor-Savage, & Carlson, 2015).
Decreased Depressive Symptoms
Mindfulness has long been considered an effective supplemental treatment for depression. It has been found to decrease depressive symptoms, anxiety, and stress in college students, as well as increasing self-compassion when compared with yoga alone (Falsafi, 2016).
One of the ways in which mindfulness can help treat depression is through enhancing practitioners’ ability to regulate their emotions. Mindfulness provides the tools needed to step back from intense negative emotions, identify them, and accept them instead of fighting them. This allows mindful thinkers to better regulate their emotions, leading to better coping and management of depression.
A study from Costa and Barnhofer (2016) backs this theory. They found that, when compared to guided imagery relaxation, a brief training in mindfulness helped participants struggling with depression to reduce their symptoms through greater emotion regulation.
Another study on the effectiveness of (MBCT) found that MBCT reduced depressive episodes, which not only helped participants feel better but also had positive impacts on their health care costs (Shawyer, Enticott, Özmen, Inder, & Meadows, 2016).
Mindfulness is even effective for people dealing with the most critical of depressive symptoms: suicidal ideation, or thoughts of suicide. In chronically depressed participants with suicidal thoughts, mindfulness was more effective than treatment as usual in reducing these thoughts (Forkmann, Brakemeier, Teismann, Schramm, & Michalak, 2016).
Improved General Health
Beyond the many mental health benefits of mindfulness, it can also improve your general health.
For example, a study of how the two facets of mindfulness impact health behaviors found that practicing mindfulness can enhance or increase multiple behaviors related to health, like getting regular health check-ups, being physically active, using seat belts, and avoiding nicotine and alcohol (Jacobs, Wollny, Sim, & Horsch, 2016).
Another study on mindfulness and health showed that mindfulness is related to improved cardiovascular health through a lower incidence of smoking, more physical activity, and a healthier body mass index (Loucks, Britton, Howe, Eaton, & Buka, 2015).
Additionally, mindfulness has been positively linked with lower blood pressure, especially when the practitioner is skilled in nonjudging and nonreactivity (Tomfohr, Pung, Mills, & Edwards, 2015).
Finally, overweight and obese practitioners of mindfulness can also take advantage of the benefits mindfulness has to offer. In a study on the impacts of mindfulness on the psychological and physical health of obese or overweight adults, researchers found that mindfulness helped participants lose weight, improve their eating behaviors and attitudes, and decrease depression and anxiety (Rogers, Ferrari, Mosely, Lang, & Brennan, 2017).
While all of these benefits of mindfulness can be experienced by children as well as adults, there are some benefits that have been found specifically in young people. These are outlined in the next section.