12 Fascinating Ways Mindfulness Can Improve Your Mental (and Physical) Health, According to Science
Mindfulness isn't some magical, esoteric, or new-agey thing (promise). Let's dive deep into the scientific research behind this powerful—and continually studied—practice.
An ever-growing body of clinical studies and lab research demonstrates the efficacy of mindfulness in helping to treat, manage, or reduce symptoms of a multitude of health conditions, both mental and physical. Even more exciting, scientists and experts continue to uncover new ways to wield the power of mindfulness for improving our health and quality of life. From boosting cognitive function to easing physical symptoms of stress, the empirical evidence speaks for itself. Here, explore some of the most significant health benefits of mindfulness.
Making mindfulness meditation a habit for only a few days can reduce overall anxiety (and who couldn’t benefit from less stress?). In a 2015 study of 133 stressed, unemployed adults, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, a three-day intensive mindfulness meditation training intervention showed reduced activity in participants’ amygdala, the brain region that triggers the release of stress hormones.
Reaping the benefits of mindfulness meditation takes less time than you might expect. Practicing mindfulness for just 20 minutes a day for four days significantly increased the cognitive efficiency (i.e., the ability to think clearly) on tasks that required sustained attention in 63 college students who had never practiced mindfulness previously, according to a 2010 study published in Consciousness and Cognition.
While practicing mindfulness isn’t a surefire way to prevent sickness, it may play a role in boosting brain and immune function, according to results of a 2003 clinical trial published in Psychosomatic Medicine. Scientists performed an eight-week study measuring brain electrical activity before and after mindfulness meditation training, with both test and control groups receiving an influenza vaccine afterward. They found significant increases in antibodies among those in the meditation group, as well as higher activity in the logical left side of the brain.
Results of a 2010 clinical trial published in the journal Emotion showed how mindfulness can increase our short-term memory capacity. Researchers examined two military groups in high-stress situations, and the group participating in an eight-week mindfulness training course (and practicing on their own after class) showed less degradation in working memory ability than the group that didn’t undergo mindfulness training.
A growing body of research suggests that mindfulness may make it easier to cope with chronic pain. John Kabat-Zinn, PhD, a pioneer in the field, conducted research in the 1980s on the effects of using mindfulness-based training to treat chronic pain. More recently, a 2017 study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine showed mindfulness meditation contributed to a small decrease in chronic pain in patients. More research and larger studies are needed to confirm mindfulness meditation’s viability as a pain treatment on its own.
Multiple studies, including results of a 1998 clinical trial published in Journal of Behavioral Medicine and a 2015 study published in Mindfulness, have shown that mindfulness meditation practice increases overall empathy levels. In the latter study, researchers investigated the effects of psychotherapists practicing loving-kindness and compassion meditation, finding that both helped them develop more empathy toward clients and reduced the negative effects associated with empathy for pain.
A 2019 study published in PLOS One backed up what was previously largely anecdotal evidence that mindfulness can help to reduce hypertension (a high risk factor for heart disease) in adults. The results of a trial of 48 participants—80 percent of whom had hypertension—showed that practicing mindfulness-based stress reduction could influence the behavioral underpinnings of this disease by improving participants’ self-regulation (i.e., the ability to avoid overeating) and enhancing their self-awareness and attention control. The results were long-lasting: An assessment one year later showed participants’ blood pressure remained lower than the baseline taken at the start of the study.
Are you always multitasking? Mindfulness may help you to shift your thinking among multiple concepts with greater ease. A 2009 study in Consciousness and Cognition compared a group of Buddhists experienced in mindfulness meditation with non-meditators, finding that the first cohort performed significantly better on all measures of focused attention via timed written tests.
Waking up groggy after a night of tossing and turning can make it tough to function at your best. Practicing mindfulness can help you to clock better Zzzs, however, according to results of a 2015 clinical trial published in JAMA Internal Medicine. The trial tested 49 older adults (with a mean age of 66.3 years) experiencing moderate to great sleep disturbances (such as insomnia) before and after going through a structured mindfulness meditation program. Post-intervention, sleep quality was largely improved and sleep-related daytime impairment was reduced. More research is needed to determine longer-term effects of mindfulness on sleep, researchers noted.
If you find yourself making decisions based on emotions, practicing mindfulness can help you disengage from emotionally upsetting situations and think more logically. A 2007 study published in Motivation and Emotion demonstrated that individuals engaging in mindfulness meditation had a weakened emotional response to unpleasant photos, allowing them to better focus on a cognitive task, and also demonstrated increased well-being.
Improving your mindfulness skills can actually boost the satisfaction you feel about your relationship. A 2007 study in Journal of Marital and Family Therapy suggests mindfulness leads to an increased capacity to handle relationship stress positively and plays a beneficial role in the health of romantic relationships.
Children can be enamored by an errant leaf, or bug, or flower—things we often don’t pay attention to as adults. Mindful attention may help us to see the world with fresher eyes, however. In a 2015 study published in PLOS One, practicing mindfulness meditation was shown (in some cases) to weaken sensory habituation, our tendency not to notice things around us in our everyday environments.