Mindfulness involves focusing your awareness on the present moment. It means paying attention to your sensations, feelings, thoughts, and environment in the here-and-now with an attitude of acceptance. Some of the potential benefits of mindfulness include lowering stress, decreasing depression, improving memory, and strengthening your relationships, among other things.
In a large-scale review of more than 400 previous studies, mindfulness was identified as an effective mental health practice for helping almost all people improve their physical and psychological well-being.
This article discusses the many benefits of mindfulness as well as some things you should consider before you decide if mindfulness-based practices are right for you.
Reduced depression is one of the important benefits of mindfulness. It can help relieve symptoms of depression and may help prevent these symptoms from returning in the future.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a type of therapy that incorporates cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) with mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). It is a relatively brief therapy, taking place over eight weeks utilizing group sessions that incorporate mindfulness practices.
In addition to mindfulness practices, MBCT also incorporates other activities such as meditation, body scan exercise, and yoga to help people focus on becoming more aware and accepting of their thoughts.
Research suggests that MBCT can not only be effective in reducing depressive symptoms but may also help prevent a relapse of depressive symptoms as effectively as antidepressant medications.
Increased Emotional Regulation
Another potential benefit of mindfulness is that the practice may help you identify and manage your feelings. Emotional regulation refers to your ability to exert control over your own emotions. This means being able to both enhance or reign in emotions depending on the situation and need.
This ability can play an important role in mental well-being and difficulties managing emotions are linked to a number of conditions including depression and borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Research has found that mindfulness-based practices can be helpful for enhancing emotional regulation skills. Neuroimaging studies suggest that mindfulness training alters areas of the brain that are activated and deactivated in response to emotion-inducing stimuli.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) combines elements of mindfulness with CBT and emotional regulation training to help treat symptoms of conditions such as borderline personality disorder.
Research suggests that DBT can be effective in helping people manage their emotions. It has also been effective in treating anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
The emotional regulation benefits of mindfulness can make it easier to cope with your feelings, ultimately improving many areas of your life, including your relationships and well-being.
Reduced Anxiety and Stress
Chronic stress is a significant problem for many adults that can contribute to a variety of health problems, including an increased risk of depression and anxiety. According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness can be helpful for soothing feelings of anxiety and stress.
Mindfulness practices have also been adapted specifically for treating symptoms of stress. One approach, known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), is an eight-week program that combines elements of mindfulness and yoga to help people address thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that contribute to feelings of stress.
Research suggests that MBSR can be a helpful way to reduce stress levels. One review of the research found that mindfulness-based therapy was also effective in the treatment of anxiety.1
A 2016 study concluded that mindfulness was both a simple and cost-effective way to reduce negative emotions, stress, and anxiety.
However, mindfulness may not always be the best tactic for reducing stress, particularly in moments of a crisis. One study found that using mindfulness tactics when coping with a stressful event had no impact on how people responded to the event. In times of crisis, proven strategies such as deep breathing are often more effective, while mindfulness might be best used as you reflect back on the event once it is over.
Mindfulness may also have potential as a way to boost your memory. If you’ve ever forgotten an important meeting or misplaced your car keys, then you know that even simple, everyday memory problems can be a major hassle. Many of these moments of forgetfulness are caused by something known as proactive interference, where older memories interfere with your ability to access newer ones.
In one 2019 study, participants either received four weeks of mindfulness training or took a creative writing course. Memory tests indicated that those who had been trained in mindfulness practices showed the greatest reductions in proactive interference, which resulted in improvements in their short-term memory.
Participants didn’t just show improvements in memory performance, however. They also demonstrated changes in their brains. Brain imaging also revealed that participants in the mindfulness training condition experienced volume changes in their hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory.
Mindfulness doesn’t just help you focus on your thoughts or remember things more readily—evidence suggests it can actually play a role in your ability to think flexibly and clearly. It makes sense that the practice of mindfulness can change your thinking. After all, the practice itself is all about learning to be more aware of your thoughts without imposing judgments on them.
There are several important cognitive abilities involved in mindfulness, including:
- Being able to focus your attention for a period of time (sustained attention)
- Being able to shift your thoughts and attention in spite of the distractions around you (cognitive flexibility)
- Suppressing other thoughts that interfere with your focus (cognitive inhibition)10
These cognitive abilities are important for a wide variety of everyday tasks. They allow you to think quickly and adapt to changing information. Such skills also help you switch from one task to another easily and make it easier to concentrate on tasks and solve problems more efficiently.
There is also emerging evidence that practicing mindfulness may have a positive impact on your interpersonal relationships. A 2018 study found that people who were more mindful also tended to be more accepting of their partner’s flaws and imperfections.
People who are more accepting of their partners are also more satisfied with their relationships. Instead of focusing on their partner’s flaws and trying to change them, mindfulness makes it easier to accept that their partner is not always perfect.
An approach to treatment known as mindfulness-based relationship enhancement (MBRE) has been shown to help improve partner acceptance, relationship satisfaction, empathy, and well-being. It incorporates mindfulness practices such as mindful touching to improve intimacy, becoming mindful of everyday activities, and practicing partner-focused loving-kindness meditation.
Better Physical Health
Research also suggests that mindfulness can help relieve symptoms of a range of different health conditions. Mindfulness practices have been linked to improvements in lower back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, Type 2 diabetes, and fibromyalgia.
Because mindfulness can help improve mood and combat stress, it may also be helpful for people who are dealing with chronic illness.
When to Use Caution
Any type of self-reflective inner work has the potential to bring difficult feelings or thoughts to light. This can be particularly true if you have a history of trauma or if you have been diagnosed with a condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD.
There are few guidelines regarding the potential side effects or situations where caution should be used. Researchers have reported instances where participants have experienced distressing adverse effects when practicing mindfulness and meditation that were serious enough to require additional treatment.
One study found that around 6% of participants who practiced mindfulness experienced side effects that included increased anxiety, dissociation, social withdrawal, and emotional numbness. However, the authors note that these effects were also accompanied by significant improvements in symptoms of depression.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try mindfulness. Instead, it simply means that you should use some caution and be aware that it is not a panacea for immediate well-being. Mindfulness and other inner work practices may make you feel worse before you begin to feel better.
Focusing deeply on your inner self can trigger uncomfortable or even distressing feelings, so you should be aware of this potential and have emotional tools you can utilize to help cope with such experiences.
If you are concerned that practicing mindfulness might be difficult or distressing for you, consider working with a trauma-informed therapist. A mental health professional with experience in this area can help guide you through the process, integrate your experience, and develop skills that will help you cope.
A Word From Verywell
There are many possible benefits of mindfulness including lowering stress, improving emotional regulation, boosting cognitive abilities, and strengthening relationships. Research has also shown that mindfulness can lead to changes in the structure and function of the brain. Adverse side effects can occur in some cases, so people should consider talking to their doctor or therapist before deciding if mindfulness is right for their needs.
Mindfulness is not a one size fits all approach to well-being. It can be a powerful wellness tool with a wide range of benefits, but that doesn’t mean that it is right for everyone. There are many mindfulness guides, apps, and other tools that can help you get started if you are interested in trying it, but you can also talk to a therapist about mindfulness-based treatment options.