Consistent with the growth in popularity of mindfulness amongst the general public, there have been increasing attempts by scientists to understand how mindfulness works. However, forming a definitive conclusion regarding the mechanisms of action that underlie mindfulness can be challenging because not only are there different forms of mindfulness practice, but mechanisms that apply to one group of people may not apply to others. For example, it appears that some of the processes that underlie the biological, psychological, and spiritual changes caused by mindfulness in experienced meditators are not the same as they are for individuals new to the practice.
Nevertheless, a number of evidence-based proposals of how mindfulness works have been put forward and these continue to be updated as new research insights emerge. Based on a range of both established and emerging evidence-based theories, the following outlines 10 mechanisms of action that are believed to play a role in facilitating improvements to health, wellbeing, and human functioning attributed to mindfulness:
1. Shift in Perception: Practising mindfulness is believed to create a “perceptual shift” in how individuals respond and relate to thoughts, feelings, and sensory stimuli (e.g., sounds, sights, smells, pain, etc.). This greater perceptual distance is understood to help people formulate a less static view of both themselves and the world around them, enabling them to relate to any distressing psychological or painful bodily experiences simply as observable phenomena.
2. Body and Situational Awareness: Mindfulness can help people feel more in touch with their body as well as the physical environment around them. Being more aware of the body can help to foster better body posture, balance, composure of movement, and body-orientated self-care. Similarly, greater situational awareness can also lead to a range of benefits, such as improvements in decision-making competency, risk evaluation and task performance.
3. Non-attachment: Mindfulness is understood to increase a person’s ability to not become attached to ideas, concepts, objects, possessions, circumstances, situations and experiences. Attachment to such things is understood to impair psychological flexibility, including limiting a person’s ability to cope with uncertainty or new situations. Conversely, using mindfulness to become less attached or fixated in this respect can improve satisfaction with life as well as life effectiveness more generally.
4. Changes in Brain Functioning: Brain imaging studies indicate that mindfulness practice results in neurological changes in various areas of the brain, such as the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and default mode network structures. These changes to how the brain functions impact on a number of physiological and psychological functions, ranging from how we process new information to keeping our emotions in balance.
5. Acceptance: Acceptance is an important part of mindfulness and is understood to improve an individual’s ability to be content with the circumstances in which they find themselves. However, it is important to note that although accepting one’s situation is integral to effective mindfulness practice, this certainly doesn’t mean that a person shouldn’t take steps to mindfully improve their situation as required.
6. Increase in Spirituality: Mindfulness is asserted to increase an individual’s levels of spiritual awareness which, in turn, can buffer against feelings of loneliness and foster resilience. This growth in spirituality can also help to broaden an individual’s perspective on life and lead to a re-evaluation of life priorities.
7. Emotion Regulation: Mindfulness can improve emotion regulation, including an individual’s ability to accurately identify and label any negative emotions or thinking patterns they might be experiencing. This increased ability to monitor one’s emotions and thoughts not only makes it easier for individuals to attend to unhelpful emotional or cognitive processes, but can also improve their interpersonal and relationship skills.
8. Reduced Biological and Psychological Arousal: Conscious breathing or breath awareness is an important part of mindfulness practice and has been shown to increase output in a primary cranial nerve known as the vagus nerve (that extends from the brainstem to the abdomen). This results in a reduction of both the heart and breathing rate, which helps to foster calm and relaxation as well as improve a person’s ability to cope with stressful situations.
9. Attention Regulation: Mindfulness can help to hone attention skills so that attention remains focussed on a particular aspect of current experience. During mindfulness practice, the idea isn’t to focus all of one’s attention on a particular object or occurrence, but to rest approximately 40-50% of attention on a given focal point (such as the breath, body posture, sounds of nature, body movements) whilst still remaining aware and open to what else might be occurring. Greater attention regulation in this context can foster benefits ranging from better task performance to arresting ruminative thought patterns as part of overcoming mental health problems.
10. Letting Go: By consciously applying awareness to the coming and going of psychological and sensory occurrences, mindfulness can help to cultivate a greater understanding of the transient or impermanent nature of phenomena. This, in turn, can help an individual let go of situations as well as gain insight into death and dying.
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