Americans have begun taking a more active role in their health over the past several decades, and today, most of us realize that maintaining overall health requires a holistic approach. This includes nurturing our emotional and mental well-being. In fact, we now know that mental health is just as important as maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol, or weight in the big picture of health.
There are many facets to our well-being and health care professionals are increasingly acknowledging the integral role mindfulness plays in sound mental health. Mindfulness — which has Buddhist origins dating back 2,500 years — is the practice of living in the present moment or focusing on the here and now. It uses the acknowledgment and acceptance of our feelings as a therapeutic technique. The practice of mindfulness considers not only thoughts and feelings, but also the sensations our bodies experience in a given moment. For example, if you were practicing mindfulness while eating, you would pay special attention to every aspect of the food, including flavors, smells and textures.
The idea is to free your mind from external distractions to truly be in the moment, no matter what you’re doing. As you become more mindful, you can extend this practice to all areas of your life to get more in tune with yourself and those around you. Ultimately, the goal is to experience more enjoyment and fulfillment from every aspect of your life.
How does mindfulness improve mental health?
So how does being more mindful translate to better mental health overall? Besides the obvious benefits of increased enjoyment and fulfillment, scientific research has proven that mindfulness has many other mental health benefits as well. Mindfulness can improve concentration, reduce stress, help balance emotions, and increase empathy and patience with others. It has also been shown to decrease depression, reduce anxiety, and even mitigate some of the negative effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mindfulness also improves our mental health by increasing our acceptance of everyday situations. Over time, the practice teaches us to fully allow and embrace thoughts and feelings — even the uncomfortable ones — rather than judging or rejecting them.
On a more scientific note, research has shown that mindfulness can increase gray matter and even support the growth of new neural pathways in our brains. This “rewiring” of the brain enables us to find new and better ways to handle tasks, cope with stress, and manage our emotions.
How does mindfulness work?
Scientists have proven that mindfulness incorporates several neuropsychological processes that result in a meditative state of self-awareness. There is no right or wrong way to achieve this state of mindfulness, but Harvard Health experts recommend a few ways to get started, including focusing on:
While it’s not necessarily realistic to be mindful all the time, there are huge benefits to be realized by practicing mindfulness for even just a few minutes each day.
What are some easy ways to apply mindfulness in my day-to-day?
The act of taking a pause to check in with your body and senses comes with practice, so we recommend starting with being mindful during one activity each day. Here are some easy ways to start adding mindfulness to your busy schedule:
At the office: Move away from multi-tasking and try to single-task instead. If you focus on a singular assignment, your brain will better be able to focus on the here and now, thus getting more accomplished. Though it may seem like you get more done while multi-tasking, you are spreading yourself too thin and are actually losing data and headspace in the process.
During a meal: Since almost all our senses are involved in eating, it is a prime opportunity to practice mindfulness. It doesn’t have to be a four-course meal, either—last night’s leftovers you brought to work will be just fine! Take a moment while eating to take stock of how it tastes, smells and makes you feel.
In your downtime: Whether you are reading a book, playing a game or watching a show on Netflix, pay attention to how you feel while doing the activity. What are you enjoying about it? What parts make you laugh or spark emotion? Is this something you recommend to a friend and if yes, what would you tell them about it?
Before bed: Our bodies are in wind-down mode before we go to sleep, so take advantage of this relaxed state to practice some mindfulness. You could try a few minutes of meditation or focus on the comfy sensations of bedtime: soft sheets, warm blankets or the sound of the fan.
Little by little, you can increase this practice to reap the greatest benefit. There is some mental health benefit to be realized from mindfulness, no matter how often you are able to practice it. Ultimately, the goal is to experience more enjoyment out of every aspect of your life.
The bottom line: Mindfulness doesn’t have to be anything complicated: just spend a few minutes every day to check in with your body to take stock of what it is experiencing. By doing so, you will be able to enjoy more fulfillment in life and boost your mental health by enjoying the simple things.