What Is Mindfulness in Psychology?

Silhouette of woman in lotus position sitting in sea and medditating

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In psychology, mindfulness typically refers to a state of being in the moment while nonjudgmentally acknowledging one’s thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness is often practiced in meditation and some forms of therapy, and many findings from psychological research suggest practicing mindfulness can lead to many benefits, including stress reduction and increased psychological well-being. However, research has also shown that in some cases mindfulness may lead to negative outcomes.

Key Takeaways: Mindfulness

  • Mindfulness is a state of in-the-moment awareness in which one avoids judging oneself and others.
  • Mindfulness can be traced back thousands of years to Hinduism and Buddhism, but the practice started to become popular in the West when Jon Kabat-Zinn combined Buddhist mindfulness with scholarly research.
  • Studies have shown that mindfulness can lead to numerous benefits including stress reduction, decreased emotional reactivity, improved focus, increased working memory, and better relationships.

Mindfulness Definition and History

While the practice of mindfulness has become increasingly popular over the past couple of decades, its roots can be traced back thousands of years to Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism is tied to mindfulness through yoga and meditation, but it was popularized in the West by those who learned about mindfulness through Buddhism. In Buddhism, mindfulness is the first step on the way to enlightenment.

One of the people often credited with bringing mindfulness to the West is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and founded what is now the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, after studying Buddhism under several teachers. Kabat-Zinn integrated Buddhist ideas about mindfulness with scholarly science, making it more accessible to those in the West.

Soon, mindfulness made its way into clinical settings with Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which has been successful in treating mental health issues such as anxiety and bipolar disorder in people of various ages. It is believed that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is especially valuable for treating individuals who have suffered a relapse of depression.

Ultimately, being mindful involves cultivating a state of purposeful attention that avoids judgment. In order to reach this state, one must let go of the desire to reduce uncertainty in daily life. This will lessen one’s focus on controlling the present and the future and override the tendency to evaluate the self, others, and one’s circumstances. Thus, mindfulness involves developing metacognition, or the ability to think about and understand one’s own thoughts, and emotional openness. 

Benefits of Mindfulness

Research has demonstrated that mindfulness has many benefits. Some of these include:

Stress Reduction

Numerous studies have focused on the ability of mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based therapy to reduce stress. For example, in a 2003 study of cancer patients, increased mindfulness was shown to reduce mood disturbances and stress. Similarly, a meta-analysis of 39 studies showed that mindfulness-based therapy treatments were effective at decreasing anxiety. These and numerous other studies demonstrate that cultivating mindfulness through meditation or other mindfulness-based training enables people to be more selective about their emotional experiences, enabling them to regulate and reduce their stress and anxiety while increasing positive emotions.

Decreased Emotional Reactivity

Given the way mindfulness can help decrease stress, it should come as no surprise that it can also decrease emotional reactivity. In a study by Ortner and colleagues, mindfulness meditation practitioners were presented with emotionally disturbing pictures and then asked to categorize unrelated tones. Participants with more experience with mindfulness meditation didn’t react as strongly to the pictures, and therefore, were better able to focus on the tone categorization task.

Improved Focus

Research has also demonstrated that mindfulness meditation can increase focus. In research by Moore and Malinowski, a group experienced with mindfulness meditation was compared with a group with no such experience on tests of concentration. The meditators significantly outperformed the non-meditators on all measures of attention, suggesting that mindfulness improves one’s ability to focus.

Increased Working Memory

Another study indicates that mindfulness may also improve working memory. Jha and colleagues investigated the impact of mindfulness meditation on military participants during a stressful time of pre-deployment, as stress has been shown to deplete working memory. One group attended an eight-week mindfulness meditation course but the others did not. Working memory decreased in the control group, however, in the mindfulness group, working memory decreased in those who spent the least time practicing mindfulness but increased in those who spent the most time practicing. More time practicing mindfulness was also related to an increase in positive affect and a decrease in negative affect.

Better Relationships

Studies have also demonstrated that mindfulness can improve one’s ability to communicate emotions and successfully respond to stress in relationships. According to research, practicing mindfulness can reduce the emotional impact of relationship conflicts and helps individuals communicate in social situations. Ultimately, these abilities increase relationship satisfaction.

Additional Benefits

There are many other benefits of mindfulness. They include everything from psychological to cognitive to physical improvements. For example, studies have shown that mindfulness can improve fear modulation, intuition, and metacognition. Meanwhile, evidence indicates that mindfulness meditation enhances information processing speed while reducing effort and disruptive thoughts. Finally, being mindful can lead to better immune functioning and the ability to more successfully manage chronic pain.

The Drawbacks of Mindfulness

Clearly, mindfulness has many noteworthy benefits, but it’s not a panacea. Some research has shown that practicing mindfulness may lead to negative outcomes. For example, one study found that following mindfulness meditation, participants were more likely to form false memories, demonstrating a potential unintended downside to mindfulness.

In addition, another study suggested mindfulness researchers needed to be careful that they didn’t harm participants by inducing adverse mental, physical, or spiritual reactions through mindfulness. For example, mindfulness meditation may result in severe anxiety for those diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Those with PTSD tend to avoid thoughts and feelings related to their trauma. However, mindfulness meditation encourages emotional openness, which could lead individuals with PTSD to experience the stressors they previously avoided, potentially leading to re-traumatization.

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