Apps that provide guided meditations have quickly become some of the most downloaded apps in the world. According to the Wall Street Journal, the meditation industry, largely focused on mindfulness meditation, is worth more than $1.2 billion annually, spent on studio classes, workshops, books, online courses and apps.
Considering that mindfulness meditation has been linked to dozens of health benefits — such as reduced stress and chronic pain, protection against chronic diseases, and better sleep — there’s a reason so many people are interested in starting a regular meditation practice.
For example, a 2019 study found that, “Mindfulness Training using a smartphone app may provide immediate effects on mood and stress, while also providing long-term benefits for attentional control.”
Mindfulness has definitely become a huge buzzword, yet many people are still confused about what exactly it means to “be mindful.” Below we’ll cover the basics of what mindfulness meditation entails, the ways it can help enhance your health both physically and mentally, as well as tips for getting started.
What Is Mindfulness Meditation?
While there are many definitions of mindfulness, one that encompasses the basic idea is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment.” Being fully present involves acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, while not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by them.
What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation? Meditation is an ancient practice, and there are many ways to meditate, mindfulness being only one of them.
You can meditate while seated, standing, walking or laying down.
Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness, which is easier to do when meditating. However, there are many ways to be mindful, as you can intentionally be more aware at various points in your day.
“You can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere, and with anyone by showing up and being fully engaged in the here and now,” explains the Chopra Center.
The Basics of Mindfulness
Many people credit Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., with the creation of modern-day mindfulness meditation as we’ve come to think of it. Zin created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979 to help patients dealing with a wide range of problems, such as chronic pain and addictions.
What happens during mindfulness meditation exactly?
People practice mindfulness meditation in order to become more intentional and aware of their thoughts and surroundings. While mindfulness meditation can be a formal practice in which you sit down in silence with your eyes closed, you can also practice in many other ways — such as by paying closer attention to the things you do each day, rather than multitasking or being distracted.
“Nearly every task we perform in a day — be it brushing our teeth, eating lunch, talking with friends or exercising — can be done more mindfully,” say writers at Mindful.org.
Here is what you can expect when practicing mindfulness:
- Rather than completing tasks while “going through the motions,” day dreaming or zoning out, instead you practice focusing on what you’re actually doing and feeling. You notice your thoughts and emotions, rather than letting your mind wander.
- The idea is to be aware of what you’re experiencing right now, rather than reviewing the past or planning for the future.
- During a guided mindfulness meditation you typically keep your focus on something constant, such as your breath or sounds in your environment. Your exact focal point varies depending on the meditation techniques you’re using.
- You may choose to focus on a prayer, chant, a certain image in your mind, a candle flame or a religious image. For example, in transcendental meditation you repeat a mantra to yourself silently, which serves as your focal point, while in Vipassana meditation (one of the oldest Buddhist meditation practices) you usually fixate your attention on your breath.
- While trying to pay attention to the object in focus, you listen to our own thoughts without being caught up in them. You notice how thoughts continuously pop up but then leave or change if you don’t follow them.
- You use the practice to gain self-awareness. Rather than trying to stop your thoughts or judge them, you approach them with curiosity and compassion.
What is mindfulness meditation capable of doing when it comes to improving your physical and mental health? Based on hundreds of research studies conducted over the past several decades, here’s what we know:
1. Helps Reduce Anxiety
According to a 2016 article published in the journal BJ Psych Bulletin, “Mindfulness-based interventions have been tried out in a wide range of mental disorders, with the strongest evidence for use in depression and anxiety.”
When you meditate, you give your mind a break from jumping back and forth between the past and future, which can trigger feelings like worry, regret, guilt, anxiety symptoms and panic. You notice where your mind “has gone off to” when it wanders and take note of habitual patterns, and then you practice returning to your breath (or another object) and not getting caught up in mental distractions.
A 2013 randomized controlled trial found that mindfulness has a beneficial effect on anxiety symptoms in those with generalized anxiety disorder, while a 2019 study found that it can reduce risk for clinical depression. When you resist taking all of your negative thoughts seriously, you experience less self-criticism and more self-compassion, plus usually more empathy for others as well.
2. Can Lower the Risk for Health Problems Related to Stress
Mindfulness meditation benefits include lowering secretion of stress hormones, helping treat insomnia, supporting recovery from addictions and much more, say writers at Harvard University: “Eight in 10 Americans experience stress in their daily lives and have a hard time relaxing their bodies and calming their minds, which puts them at high risk of heart disease, stroke, and other illnesses.”
Mindfulness is now considered as effective at protecting your health as exercise, yoga and even eating a healthy diet. It may also reduce chronic pain, thanks to its positive effects on stress hormone production, such as cortisol levels, and the immune system.
Research shows that meditation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for making you feel calmer and overcoming stressful situations, and turns down the flight or fight response. This can lead to physical health improvements, such as lowered blood pressure, less muscle tension, fewer tension headaches and improved digestion.
3. May Help Improve Sleep
A growing number of studies suggest that mindful meditation can improve sleep quality. The reason it can assist you in falling and staying asleep is because it decreases ruminating and worrying, plus relaxes your body.
A 2018 study compared the effects of a seven-week mindfulness treatment to no treatment among a waiting list control group. Findings showed that those trained in mindfulness experienced less subjective insomnia and sleep impairment and improved sleep quality and sleepiness.
Individuals in the mindfulness group demonstrated significant improvements across all outcome measures that were maintained at a three-month follow-up assessment.
4. Can Help Kids Feel Calmer and More Focused
Children and teens who practice mindfulness activities may benefit from improved concentration, communication, coping skills and self-esteem.
A 2019 article published in the journal Current Opinion in Pediatrics explains that mindfulness-based interventions can reduce a number of problems commonly experienced by adolescents, including:
- symptoms of anxiety and depression
- binge eating/overeating
- restrictive eating disorders
- lack of emotion regulation
- sleep problems
- chronic illness and pain
- stress related to performance in school and sports
5. Can Improve Recovery from Addictions and Destructive Habits
Because mindfulness helps people bounce back from emotionally upsetting events more quickly, plus increases the flexibility through which one can respond to stressful events, it’s useful for overcoming a variety of addictions.
Research findings suggest that it works to decrease unwanted behaviors because it trains individuals to first notice their thoughts/cravings and then to practice different strategies to distance themselves from these thoughts, without giving into them.
A 2018 article published in Addiction Science and Clinical Practice states:
Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have been studied as a treatment for an array addictive behaviors, including drinking, smoking, opioid misuse, and use of illicit substances like cocaine and heroin … MBIs reduce substance misuse and craving by modulating cognitive, affective, and psychophysiological processes integral to self-regulation and reward processing.
How to Start
Now that you know the many reasons to adopt a meditation practice, you’re probably wondering, “How do you do mindfulness meditation?” Here’s how to practice mindfulness if you’re a beginner, using a basic meditation technique that focuses your awareness on your breath:
- Start by deciding how long you want to practice for. In the beginning it’s recommended that you stick to short but consistent sessions, such as five or 10 minutes per day, in order to build a habit. As you advance, you may want to meditate for as long as 2o to 60 minutes daily.
- Choose a location where you’re comfortable and undistracted. This can be inside or outside, depending on your preference.
- Decide which posture works best for you, choosing one that allows you to feel comfortable but alert. You may want to sit with crossed legs and a straight spine or lay down, but keep in mind that the goal isn’t to fall asleep. You can also use a chair, a meditation cushion, bolster, blanket, etc., if it helps you.
- Keep your body relaxed, eyes either closed or slightly open but soft, and arms loosely dangled by your side. Try to relax your muscles but not to hunch or stiffen your back or neck.
- Bring your attention to your breath, focusing on the sounds, feelings in your body or anything else that grabs your attention regarding your breath.
- This is when your mind will start to wander, which is expected and normal. Gently return your attention to your breath. Your mind will likely keep generating thoughts that distract you, but the whole point of the meditation is to practice observing your thoughts without needing to react.
- No matter how much your attention keeps drifting away from your breath, try not to judge yourself or give up. When time is up, take a moment to notice how your body feels and any change in your emotions. Pause for a few moments and notice if you feel any more clarity or calmness.
Incorporating Into Daily Life
What are some mindfulness exercises you can start implementing each day? Whether you prefer meditating while sitting, walking or laying down, here are some ways you can start practicing today:
- Find a quiet place at home where you can sit and listen to your favorite mindfulness meditation YouTube videos, apps or podcasts. There are now hundreds of free guided mindfulness meditations available online, so keep searching until you find a teacher who resonates with you.
- Commit to trying a meditation app for 10 days in a row, which may be enough to make the habit stick.
- If an active meditation appeals to you more, experiment with yoga or other ways of using exercise as active meditation. You can do this by focusing on your breath while moving, noticing how different parts of your body feel, and tuning into the rhythm of your movements.
- If you’re interested in taking your practice to the next level, consider learning advanced meditation techniques at a training center or retreat. You may even be brave enough to try a silent retreat, in which you don’t talk out loud to anyone else for several days.
- What is mindfulness meditation? It’s a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment.
- Benefits of meditation include decreasing the risk for stress, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, eating disorders, chronic pain, ADHD among adolescents and much more.
- There are various mindfulness exercises that can help improve your physical and mental health, including sitting, walking and moving meditations. You can choose to focus on your breath, sounds, your body, images, mantras and more.
- In order to get started, consider trying mindfulness training apps or videos or attending a class or retreat. With as little as 10 minutes per day you can lower your risk for many health problems related to stress, while improving your overall well-being.