You may have heard of ‘mindfulness’ before. It is a trendy term used frequently in modern society. It seems like everyone, celebrities and books alike, advocates for living a mindful life, and many preach the benefits of mindfulness. In psychology, mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular to learn and research. You may be wondering what mindfulness is in psychology. We will be taking a look at this here in this explanation.
- First, we will define what mindfulness psychology is, including the key components of mindfulness.
- Then, we will give some examples of mindfulness in practice in psychology.
- After that, we will look at the benefits of practising mindfulness.
- Following that, we will look at the difference between mindfulness and meditation.
- Following that, we will look at the difference between mindfulness and meditation.
- Finally, we will delve into some evaluation of mindfulness techniques points.
Mindfulness Definition: Psychology
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who popularised mindfulness in the West through his development of mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness is:
The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally – Kabat-Zinn1
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, a religion/philosophy that aims for its followers to attain enlightenment. Mindfulness helps us become more aware of present surroundings/ circumstances whilst limiting worry about the past or the future.
The key characteristic of mindfulness is the focus on the here and now. Additionally, we can examine the thoughts that arise during the day and accept them without trying to change them. In this way, our thoughts will not take over our feelings and behaviour.
Fig 1. - Meditation is a technique used to practise mindfulness.
Key Components of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a practice advocated by positive psychology. How is mindfulness related to the assumptions of positive psychology? Let us take a look. The assumptions of positive psychology are:
- Acknowledgement of free will: we have control over our lives. We can develop our strengths, plan for the future, make beneficial choices, and take charge of and promote our well-being.
- The authenticity of goodness and excellence: most psychological disciplines focus on what is wrong with a person. However, positive psychology argues that positive qualities are just as important.
- Focus on the good life: three dimensions of life lead to happiness, ‘the pleasant life’, ‘the good life’, and ‘the meaningful life’.
The key component of mindfulness is the recognition of free will. When we feel we have control over our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, we experience a sense of well-being and happiness. Mindfulness encourages us to be in tune with our thoughts and emotions and give ourselves control over them rather than letting them control us.
A mother asked her child to clean up his toys at the end of the day. When it was bedtime, she went into the bedroom and found it still messy everywhere.
Instead of reacting instinctively and angrily yelling, ‘I told you to clean up!’, the mother notices her feelings rising, pauses, and calmly asks, ‘Please clean this up like I asked you to’.
Fig 2. - Practising meditation helps us to be more mindful.
Mindfulness Psychology: Techniques
Now that we know the definition and key characteristics and components of mindfulness, what techniques are there for cultivating mindfulness?
A simple way to practise mindfulness is through a body scan meditation. If we lead hectic lives, tension can accumulate in parts of our bodies that we do not even notice.
In a body scan meditation, we attend to each body part by focusing on them and acknowledging any sensations. If we notice any atypical feelings in body regions, the individual tries to relax it.
The key is to accept all the sensations in the body and relax. By taking time for meditation, we can also give ourselves a break and get away from the everyday life’s hustle and bustle.
We can all try to incorporate mindfulness into our daily routines via informal practice. One way to do this is to focus on the task at hand without being distracted by other things. Here is one example of mindfulness psychology in everyday life:
When you eat a meal, take the time to savour the taste; notice how each bite tastes.
Fig 3. - An example of an informal mindfulness practice is mindful eating.
Mindfulness Psychology Examples
Mindfulness-based therapies are mindfulness psychology examples of interventions formed to help individuals with various issues, such as chronic pain.
Jon Kabat-Zinn developed mindfulness-based stress reduction in the 1970s to help people with chronic pain who were not responding to medication. He wanted to help patients suffering from chronic pain to find a different way of dealing with pain through mindfulness. The intervention helps patients be more in tune with their emotions and bodies and recognise when to use techniques (such as yoga) to manage and decrease pain.
Today, mindfulness is used for various conditions, such as stress, anxiety, and depression.
The intervention has been applied to help people with chronic stress responses. The mindfulness-based stress reduction program usually lasts eight weeks, with each weekly session lasting about two and a half hours.
Participants in the program are taught various skills, such as stress physiology, mindfulness meditation, body scanning, and yoga.
During the program, there will be opportunities for group discussion about the practices learned and how to apply them to daily life.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy incorporates cognitive behaviour therapy with the principles of mindfulness. It aims to halt the cognitive processes that patients automatically engage in that lead to depression and other mental health illnesses.
Patients are instructed to observe, recognise and accept thoughts without judgement. Patients know these thoughts are just temporary, passing through the mind rather than being a part of themselves. They are acknowledged to be dysfunctional.
Like mindfulness-based stress reduction, it is in the form of group sessions for eight weeks and teaches techniques such as meditation.
Effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Therapies
Reibel et al. (2001) studied the effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction in a group of patients with various medical diagnoses; a total of 136 patients received an 8-week program. Patients experienced an improved health-related quality of life, such as vitality and less physical pain.
Participants also experienced improved psychological well-being, with a 38% reduction in the Global Severity Index of the Symptom Checklist-90 Revised, including a 44% reduction in anxiety and a 34% reduction in depression.
Teasdale et al. (2000) conducted a study to investigate whether mindfulness-based cognitive therapy could help people with recurrent depression; researchers assigned 145 patients to either treatment as usual or treatment as usual, plus mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
The researchers found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy significantly reduced the risk of relapse in patients who had previously had three or more depressive episodes. However, the treatment was ineffective for those with two prior depressive episodes.
Williams et al. (2014) conducted a study to examine the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, cognitive psychological training, or treatment as usual in patients with major depression (three or more recurrent episodes). A total of 274 participants participated in the study and received mindfulness-based cognitive therapy with usual care, cognitive-psychological training with usual care, or treatment alone.
The researchers found the patients’ treatment did not affect relapse rates. However, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy provided more significant protection against relapse in childhood trauma patients.
The study thus showed that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is effective, especially for patients with multiple depressive episodes or a history of childhood trauma.
Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation
The words mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably, which can cause confusion. Both mindfulness and meditation do not refer to the same thing, so here we will explain the difference between mindfulness and meditation.
As discussed, mindfulness is tuning into and focusing on the present without worrying about the past and the future. In contrast, meditation is a practice that is used to practice mindfulness. It is not the only way we can achieve mindfulness, just one of many techniques.
We can achieve mindfulness through formal practises such as meditation or informal practises that we incorporate into our daily lives, such as taking a walk and being mindful of our environment and anything involving connecting with the present.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Practising mindfulness comes with numerous benefits. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends it for its effectiveness in preventive treatments, especially for people with depression. Here are some examples of the benefits of mindfulness.
Chambers et al. (2008) studied the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation training. Twenty novice meditators were sent on a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat. The researchers found that compared to a control group not participating in the retreat, the 20 participants in the intensive mindfulness retreat showed significant improvements in self-reported mindfulness, depressive symptoms, rumination, working memory, and sustaining attention.
A meta-analysis by Hoffman et al. (2010) on the effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy linked mindfulness to stress reduction. In 39 studies, 1,140 participants received mindfulness-based therapy for various conditions, including cancer, anxiety, depression, and other problems. They found that these therapies were effective in helping people with anxiety and mood disorders.
Greater emotional control
Ortner et al. (2007) found that mindfulness meditation led to less emotional distress from unpleasant images. In their study, they found in an experiment that mindfulness practitioners (i.e., those with more experience using mindfulness techniques) showed less impairment from unpleasant images and reported higher levels of psychological well-being.
Self-observation and changes in the brain lead to happy emotions.
According to Siegel (2007), mindfulness allows us to change the flow of information in the brain to inhibit previous pathways that may have been maladaptive ways of thinking. Davidson et al. (2003) found that patients who completed eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training had higher left anterior activation in the brain associated with positive emotions compared to a control group. Mindfulness meditation also led to better immune function.
Mindfulness was found to help people respond better and more helpfully to stress in romantic relationships. It also helps people communicate more effectively with their partners and increase relationship satisfaction (Barnes et al., 2007). Mindfulness also helps people express themselves better in social situations (Dekeyser et al., 2008).
Evaluation of Mindfulness Techniques
The advantages of mindfulness are:
- Mindfulness is considered an ethical therapy because there are none to minimal undesirable side effects of practising mindfulness.
- Mindfulness promotes free will and the ability of people to take charge of their own lives and make positive changes; therefore, it is not deterministic.
- As a form of therapy, mindfulness is accessible to everyone. There are numerous online resources and apps to check out. In addition, we can try to incorporate small doses of mindfulness into our daily lives.
Research highlights the benefits of mindfulness.
However, mindfulness teaches people to accept thoughts but does not address the source of the troubling thoughts. If these thoughts are not addressed, they can continue to cause problems for patients.
In addition, it takes time and practice to master mindfulness which can lead people to feel frustrated and eventually give up the practice.
Mindfulness Psychology - Key takeaways
- Mindfulness is tuning into and focusing on the present without worrying about the past and the future.
- In positive psychology, mindfulness is linked to the acknowledgement of free will.
- Some techniques to practice mindfulness include body scan meditation, the informal practice of incorporating mindfulness into our daily routines, and online resources and apps.
- The benefits of mindfulness include less rumination, less stress, greater emotional control, introspection, and changes in the brain that lead to happy emotions, better immune function, and better relationships.
- The evaluation of mindfulness techniques overall is positive; however, it can be challenging to maintain as it can cause feelings of frustration due to the time and practice needed to get it right.
- Purser, R. The Myth of the Present Moment. Mindfulness 6, 680–686 (2015).