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: