Our world is a busy place and even for those of us accustomed to the hustle and bustle, it can be hard to keep up. In an effort to cope with this nonstop pace, many people have started turning to mindfulness therapy. Mindfulness is not a new concept, but it has gained popularity in recent years, and psychologists are currently exploring it as an option for improving mental health.
What is mindfulness, and can it truly help to improve physical and mental health?
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a Buddhist tradition increasing in popularity as more and more people find themselves swept up in the fast-paced nature of the modern word. In essence, the concept of mindfulness is simply paying attention — being aware of yourself and your surroundings in the present moment. It may sound simple, but look at it this way:
When you’re eating dinner, are you paying attention to the food? Are you, like most of us, watching TV, sitting at your computer, listening to music or reviewing the events of your day?
Eating mindfully, in this example, would be paying attention to the food you’re eating — the taste, the texture, whether you’re enjoying it or anything else that is part of the experience.
Mindfulness is being aware of yourself in the present moment, rather than dwelling on the past or projecting your thoughts toward the future.
While mindfulness applies to nearly every situation, recently some researchers have been exploring it as a therapeutic option for those who suffer from mental illness. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, or MBCT, is a new style of therapy based on applying the principles of mindfulness to the commonly used Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT.
CBT teaches individuals how to identify negative thoughts and thought processes that may be either causing problems or preventing healing. Over time, the method teaches people how to replace those negative thoughts with positive ones.
MBCT builds on that foundation, teaching individuals how to review their thoughts without judgment and how to either release or apply them, as necessary. Instead of allowing these notions to become a full-blown depressive episode, individuals suffering from depression or other mental illnesses are given a measure of control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation. For many, that control makes all the difference.
Other Benefits of Mindfulness
Becoming a more mindful individual doesn’t just improve your mental health. A growing number of studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can be beneficial for your physical well-being as well.
Being more mindful is a great way to reduce stress, and some anecdotal evidence even suggests that it can provide other physical benefits, such as lowered blood pressure, improved sleep and reduced chronic pain, just to name few.
Right now, mindfulness and MBCT are popular ways for people to start treating their mental illnesses, but the process does not yet have the support of unbiased medical studies. That is about to change. The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) is planning a series of studies to determine how well mindfulness therapy works and the best ways to apply it to help people suffering from mental illnesses.
This change of heart from NIMH could spell a fundamental shift in the way we treat mental illnesses. While it will not replace the use of medications, mindfulness therapy used in conjunction with medications may allow us to create a better and more effective treatment plan that works where other techniques have failed.