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Mindfulness Quiets Unhelpful Thoughts

Mindfulness improves cognition and reduces distracting thoughts in depression.

Scientists have found new evidence that mindfulness can help you ignore irrelevant negative thoughts, even when you're depressed. People who are depressed commonly find themselves more easily distracted, slowed or overwhelmed by negative or self-critical thoughts. Mindfulness can help you get "unstuck."

A new study from researchers at Harvard Medical School’s Massachusetts General Hospital has uncovered the first evidence that mindfulness can help people with depression pay better attention and ignore unhelpful thoughts that aren't relevant. This study adds to the growing evidence that mindfulness can play an important role in preventing and treating depression.

Mindfulness has been shown to improve your thought process, attention, and memory. This study is the first to show that people who are experiencing depression can also improve their thought processes with mindfulness training. The study uses a task that measures the ability to avoid getting distracted by “troublemaker” irrelevant thoughts, such as self-critical thoughts. Researchers refer to this kind of task as “smart inhibition,” since it measures how well you can avoid getting caught up in irrelevant thoughts (Meriran et al. 2011).

The study found 8-weeks of mindfulness cognitive behavioral therapy program improved depression and cognitive performance on the “smart inhibition” task compared to those who were on the waitlist who had not yet gone through mindfulness training.

How can mindfulness help you avoid getting stuck in negative “potholes” of your mind?

Mindfulness encourages a lack of attachment to thoughts that wander through your mind and teaches you how to avoid getting caught up in self-criticism, judgment, and rumination. Even though many people think of mindfulness as having to “empty” your mind or make your mind “blank,” it’s actually about giving yourself space to observe your mind so that you don’t entangle yourself in your thoughts.

Try this simple 1-minute mindfulness exercise.

  1. Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out through your nose. Listen to what your breath sounds like.
  2. Now, listen to the sounds around you. What do you hear? What do you smell?
  3. You might start to notice thoughts starting to trickle into your mind. It’s normal to have a lot of distracting thoughts start to enter your mind—whether it’s what you want to eat for dinner or the deadline of projects you have to finish.
  4. Once you notice these thoughts, just gently lead your attention back to the sound of your breath.
  5. Let your thoughts come and go in your mind. Imagine that you are the sidewalk, watching and observing your thoughts pass like cars in traffic. There is no need to run out into traffic to stop the thoughts or to hop in every car and follow it to the end of its trip.
  6. Instead, just observe your thoughts as you would traffic: Notice the size and shape of the cars, the colors, or how fast it’s going. It might be bumpy at first, but the more that you gently guide your attention back to the sound of your breath and the sounds in the room, and you will find that the noise of your thoughts become less urgent and attention-grabbing.

Practicing short mindfulness exercises helps you learn how to observe your thoughts from enough of a distance that you don't feel pressed to judge, interact, or get stuck in them. With brief daily mindfulness, you will be better able to focus on what is important and ignore thoughts that are irrelevant, unhelpful, or create more worry and rumination.

Copyright © 2016 Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC


Chiesa A, Serretti A (2011) Mindfulness based cognitive therapy for psychiatric disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychiatry Res 187:441–453.

Chiesa A, Calati R, Serretti A (2011) Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings. Clin Psychol Rev 31:449–464

Greenberg, J., Shapero, B.G., Mischoulon, D. et al. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci (2016). doi:10.1007/s00406-016-0746-x

Heeren A, Van Broeck N, Philippot P (2009) The effects of mindfulness on executive processes and autobiographical memory specificity. Behav Res Ther 47:403–409

Meiran N, Hsieh S, Chang C-C (2011) “Smart inhibition”: electrophysiological evidence for the suppression of conflict-generating task rules during task switching. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci 11:292–308. doi:10.3758/s13415-011-0037-y

Van der Velden AM, Kuyken W, Wattar U et al (2015) A systematic review of mechanisms of change in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in the treatment of recurrent major depressive disorder. Clin Psychol Rev 37:26–39. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2015.02.001

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