Paying attention to what’s going on right this second can be hard. We often spend more time thinking about what’s coming up in the future. Or dwelling on things in the past we can’t change. We can miss out on experiencing the present.
It’s possible to train yourself to focus on the present moment. You become aware of what’s going on inside and around you—your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment. You observe these moments without judgment. This is called mindfulness.
“We’re looking at our thoughts and feelings with curiosity, gentleness, and kindness,” explains Dr. Eric Loucks, director of the Mindfulness Center at Brown University.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation. Meditation is a practice that aims to increase awareness of the mind and concentration.
In recent years, mindfulness has become a household term. Mindfulness programs are now commonly found in schools, workplaces, and hospitals.
Mindfulness can involve a sitting meditation that’s practiced in a quiet space. In this practice, you focus on your breathing or sensations in your body. If your mind wanders—like thoughts popping in about things you need to do—you try to return your mind to the present moment.
But mindfulness doesn’t have to be done sitting still or in silence. You can integrate the practice into things you do every day, like walking or eating. You can also be mindful while interacting with others.
Health Benefits of Mindfulness
Studies suggest that focusing on the present can have a positive impact on health and well-being.
Mindfulness-based treatments have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. There’s also evidence that mindfulness can lower blood pressure and improve sleep. It may even help people cope with pain.
“For many chronic illnesses, mindfulness meditation seems to improve quality of life and reduce mental health symptoms,” says Dr. Zev Schuman-Olivier of Harvard University.
One of the first mindfulness-based therapies was used for depression. Many studies have shown that it can be effective for some people.
Mindfulness appears to help with depression in two ways. First, it helps you develop the ability to stay grounded in the present, explains Dr. Sona Dimidjian of the University of Colorado Boulder. She studies the use of mindfulness-based treatments to prevent relapse of depression, including among pregnant women.
With depression, “your attention can get hijacked into the past or future,” she explains. You spend time focusing on past negative experiences or worrying about things to come.
Second, mindfulness can help you “de-center” from such thoughts. “It’s like being able to sit on the riverbank and watch thoughts floating by like leaves on a stream,” Dimidjian says. “Developing the skill of mindfulness can help stop you from being pulled into any one thought and carried down the stream. People often experience thoughts like, ‘nothing ever works out for me,’ or ‘it’s always going to be this way. Over time, and with practice, you can develop the ability to stand back from these painful thought patterns.”
Researchers are now studying whether mindfulness training can help with a variety of other conditions, including PTSD, eating disorders, and addiction.
Schuman-Olivier is looking at whether mindfulness can help reduce anxiety among people being treated for opioid use. This could help prevent relapse.
Developing Healthy Habits
Being mindful may also help you make healthier choices. Loucks’s team at Brown created an eight-week mindfulness program for people with high blood pressure.
They studied whether the program increased participants’ awareness of their habits. This included how they ate. The study found that participants chose a healthier diet after taking the course.
You can bring mindfulness to your eating habits, too. Studies suggest that it can help reduce binge eating and emotional eating. Paying closer attention to your body can help you notice signals that you’re full and help you better enjoy your food.
This body awareness seems to be one part of how mindfulness helps people adopt healthier habits. If you’ve just eaten a jelly donut, you may be more likely to notice an unpleasant sugar crash, Loucks explains. Remembering this can help you to make better food choices in the future.
This goes for positive feelings too. “With physical activity, just about everybody feels better afterwards. So, with mindfulness training we’re aware of it improving our mood, and then we can use that reward to actually train ourselves,” Loucks says.
Mindfulness may also help with setting a goal. “We can place our mind on being more active or eating more fruits and vegetables. And if we place our intention there, it may be more likely that we’re going to carry through and make it happen,” Loucks explains.
Learning To Be Mindful
If you want to practice mindfulness, there are many online programs and apps. But they’re not all created equal. Experts suggest looking for resources from medical schools and universities. Check to see if they’re evidence-based.
Dimidjian’s team developed an eight-week self-guided online mindfulness program. Her studies showed that the program helped reduce symptoms of depression more than a standard treatment alone.
“If you end up having difficulty with an app, though, don’t take it personally or think that you’re somehow bad at mindfulness, or it’s not meant for you,” Schuman-Olivier says. You can also try finding a teacher or someone with the skills to guide you in mindfulness training.
And just like any skill, mindfulness takes practice. “Just because something is simple, doesn’t mean that it’s easy,” Dimidjian says.
Mental training can take time and dedication. Aim for a few minutes of mindfulness each day to start.
A body scan meditation can be a good way to connect with your body. It helps make you aware of how your body feels as you mentally scan from head to toe.
Start in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Take several deep breaths. Then, notice your feet. How do they feel?
Let your scan travel up your body—legs, stomach, arms, hands, neck, and finally, head. Notice any sensations or discomfort. Try not to change or judge these feelings—you’re simply checking in. Doing body scans on a regular basis can help increase mindfulness.
For more tips on practicing mindfulness, see the Wise Choices Box.