The Benefits (and Potential Pitfalls) of Mindfulness
Is mindfulness really all it’s cracked up to be?
Maybe you’ve seen the headlines claiming the term is overused or the concept stretched too thin. Maybe you’ve even heard that mindful meditation can be detrimental to your mental health.Studies show that when people commit to mindfulness, some amazing changes start to happen, both neurologically and physically. Click To Tweet
While each of these claims holds a grain of truth, the bottom line is that mindfulness is powerful. And this isn’t just my opinion – it’s fully backed by research. Studies show that when people commit to mindfulness, some amazing changes start to happen, both neurologically and physically. But for some people, there can be pitfalls.
If you’re new to mindfulness, it’s worth noting that a mindfulness practice can include meditation, but it doesn’t have to. For example, my simple practice of posture, breath and mind is based on mindfulness but doesn’t require the dedicated time and space that meditation does.
Benefits of Mindfulness
To start, here’s what studies show happens after an 8-week period of mindfulness practice:
- The amygdala: our flight-or-fight center shrinks, and its connection with the rest of the brain weakens.
- The prefrontal cortex: this area of the brain, associated with awareness and higher thought, grows thicker.
- Biomarkers: the ones associated with stress and inflammation are reduced.
In short, the survival brain’s influence is reduced in favor of the evolved part of our brain. This results in a positive impact on the body.
In advanced meditators (defined by over 40,000 hours achieved), scientists found that when their brains were scanned in a normal state, the scans resembled the average person’s brain while meditating. This suggests a cumulative, lasting effect.
The American Psychological Association defines mindfulness as “a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.” Based on research, they promote its benefits as the following:
- Reduced rumination
- Decreased anxiety and depression
- Stress reduction
- Boosted working memory
- Improved ability to sustain focus
- Less emotional reactivity
- More cognitive flexibility
- Greater relationship satisfaction
- Enhanced self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation
- Increased immune functioning
- Improved overall well-being
Pros and Cons
The list of beneficial outcomes is clear, but are there risks?
A study conducted at Coventry University in the UK found that of those who try meditation, about 8% experience an increase in anxiety or other unwanted negative effects. While the causes are unclear, these meditators may be pressuring themselves to achieve unrealistic objectives, such as a bliss state where nothing bothers them. It’s also worth noting that 8% is a small number up against the overwhelming majority of people who practice mindfulness and find it very helpful, psychologically and physically.
Some proponents of mindfulness, like Psychologist Jason Linder, caution us against seeing mindfulness as a cure-all, or applying it in a watered-down fashion. Linder is also concerned that we, in our Western individual-driven consumerist society, have misappropriated the concept from more collective-centered Asian cultures. This can play out, for example, as a kindness/compassion practice turned toward egocentrism, which just makes an individual’s suffering worse.
Rumination vs. Self-Reflection
In the study of consciousness and self-awareness, researchers discovered what came to be known as the “self-absorption paradox”. This results when self-reflection leads to both psychological distress and well-being – baffling, until the difference between rumination and reflection was considered, and how easily the two can be conflated.
While rumination, or obsessively thinking about a past situation, can lead to self-absorption with heightened anxiety and depression, reflection increases self-knowledge. Recent studies have even revealed the key variable that may shape whether one will veer towards rumination or reflection. That variable is the need for absolute truth, or certainty.
Without certainty, our Stone Age brains are hardwired to prepare for the worst-case scenario as a means to keep us alive – a survival tactic that proves far less effective in today’s modern age. Rumination feeds this impulse. It keeps us fixated on ourselves and imagining all kinds of worst-case scenarios. Self-reflection allows us to gain some objectivity and be better able to see this impulse in ourselves, accept that the future is uncertain, and recognize that things often don’t turn out in the way we expect.
For those with trauma so deep that they just can’t press “Pause” on the stories looping through their heads, it may be that mindfulness isn’t the answer, at least not as a first step. If you try meditation and find it encourages rumination rather than reflection and acceptance, you may want to consider if it is right for you. Personally, I find having meditation as part of my mindfulness practice crucial to staying grounded and connected to inner peace.
I’ve created a short meditation you can listen to or download for whenever you need a quick, mental and emotional reset. If meditation sounds like a practice you’re interested in trying, I’d suggest committing to it once a day for the next week. Start small. Don’t sabotage yourself by setting unrealistic goals. Try 10 minutes at first, or even 5. Take a minute of that time at the beginning and the end to compare how you feel before you start with how you feel after. See if you notice that you’re a little less reactive, more self-aware and feel less stressed.
Take good care : )