Dear Doctor: I'm looking for new ways to deal with all the stress I feel these days, and a friend keeps talking about something called "mindfulness." What is that, exactly? Is there any proof that it actually works?
Dear Reader: We hear a hint of skepticism in your question, and we understand why it's there. The word "mindfulness" sounds vague and a bit New Age-y, but the concepts behind the practice date back thousands of years. They have roots in Buddhism and other ancient spiritual traditions, which have been modified and Westernized over time.
As we know it today, mindfulness is an umbrella term for a range of contemplative practices that help the practitioner to become fully present in the here-and-now. Techniques to induce mindfulness can include deep breathing exercises, meditation, hatha yoga, a walk in the woods, losing oneself in a creative project or just sitting and quieting one's thoughts. The goal is to silence the cacophony of the outside world in order to find the stillness of the inner one. Rather than letting one's thoughts race from problem to problem, worrying about things that have not and may not happen, the practice of mindfulness seeks to bring the focus of one's awareness to this very minute, without judgment, right now.
As anyone who has ever tried meditation probably knows, finding calm amid the turbulence of our thoughts and emotions can be a challenge. That's why many people find it helpful when the practice is tied to some kind of movement, such as the slow and sustained flow of yoga or tai chi, or the soothing repetition of breathing exercises.
A growing body of recent research suggests that mindfulness techniques can be helpful in relieving stress, depression and anxiety, as well as lessening the physical toll that those emotional states can take on the body. There is also evidence that mindfulness is helpful for people living with chronic pain.
A study published in May 2018 found that participants who engaged in mind-body practices to induce relaxation for eight weeks had a change in gene expression that led to a measurable decrease in blood pressure. Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2016 reported that mindfulness meditation helped patients with lower back pain find drug-free relief. Scientists at Georgetown University Medical Center found that mindfulness meditation by individuals with a stress disorder lowered the biomarkers of stress response. And a review of a number of studies into the effects of mindfulness found that the practice can have beneficial psychological effects, including an increase in a sense of well-being and a decrease in anxiety.
It's important to note that earlier studies often relied on self-reported results from participants, which caused skepticism about how effective mindfulness actually is. This has led to more scientifically rigorous studies that use control groups, which allow researchers to minimize any unintended variables. And as interest into the potential of mindfulness grows, new studies are using advanced imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, to study the effects of the practice in real time.