Mindfulness is a meditation practice that involves intentionally paying attention to the present moment. Researchers studying the science behind mindfulness meditation have demonstrated that it can actually change the way our brains work. As more and more Americans report depression and anxiety, there has been increased public interest and scientific attention to mindfulness in recent years. Could something as simple as meditating be a realistic alternative to pharmaceutical solutions?
“The science is new on this subject, but it’s deeply embedded in the religious practices, especially in south Asian countries like India and Nepal,” said Muhammad Aadil, M.D., resident physician in psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
He reviewed the latest research on mindfulness in the journal Cureus and as a physician, he educates his patients about mindfulness. We spoke with Dr. Aadil to learn whether mindfulness is a fad or the real deal, and to understand what happens to the brain during meditation.
Benefits of Mindfulness
“Our mind is always wandering and always thinking about different things and not staying in the present moment,”said Aadil. “So, if you can train your mind to stick in the present time, it can truly change your life.”
Scientific studies have demonstrated that mindfulness can help focus our thoughts. According to the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, consistent meditation can improve your compassion, ability to solve problems, attention span and resiliency to stress. Mindfulness helps the mind and body recover from stressful situations. For example, researchers have found that mindfulness makes breakups and divorce easier.
In general, according to Greater Good, mindfulness is a positive influence on relationships with loved ones. For example, studies have shown that when couples discussed a conflict, the stress hormone cortisol spiked during these difficult conversations, as expected. But after the conflict was over, the more mindful participants calmed down faster and quickly returned to normal cortisol levels.
Mindfulness can be a helpful tool for parents. It has been linked to lower stress, depression, and anxiety among parents of preschoolers and children with disabilities, and mindful parenting practices can help parents be more empathetic with their children.
Scientific American reports that evidence-backed benefits of mindfulness include memory improvement, stress reduction, healthier diet and sleep improvement. One study found undergraduate students who took a two-week mindfulness class performed better on the reading comprehension portion of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test used for graduate school admissions by 16 percentile points.
Mindfulness programs have widely been shown to help people cope with mental health such as anxiety and stress, and they can also improve physical health by helping people improve their eating and sleeping habits. For example, people who meditate with their eyes closed fall asleep faster, Aadil said.
Mental Health and Meditation Practices
Mindfulness can be part of psychological treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and eating disorders. In those situations, meditation can supplement, though not replace standard treatment.
“The gold standard treatment is medication,” says Aadil. He adds, “Maybe in the future, with better techniques for mindful CBT, we might be able to reduce the dosage of the medication, but I don’t see that it will completely replace medication.”
But for mild depression and mild anxiety, mindfulness practices can be very effective without medication,…