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Published on April 9, 2021

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

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What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

Mindfulness has become a popular buzzword in the health and wellness industry. However, few people truly understand what it is. My aim here is to teach you what mindfulness is and how it helps your mental wellness. By the end of this article, you will understand the meaning and benefits of mindfulness. Additionally, you will develop the ability to integrate mindfulness into your daily life.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is approximately 2500-years-old with deep roots in the Eastern world as a spiritual, ethical, and philosophical practice. These roots are intimately connected to the Buddhist practice of vipassana meditation.[1]

Mindfulness continues to be practiced as a cultural and spiritual tradition in many parts of the world. For Buddhists, it offers an ethical and moral code of conduct. For many, mindfulness is more than a practice—it is a way of life.[2]

However, mindfulness has evolved in the Western world and has become a non-religious practice for wellbeing. The evolution began around 1979 when Jon-Kabat Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).[3] Since then, mindfulness has emerged in the health and wellness industry and continues to evolve.

It is important to recognize the distinctions between mindfulness as a clinical practice and mindfulness as a cultural practice. The focus of this article is on the clinical model of mindfulness developed in the West.

Many researchers have integrated aspects of Buddhism and mindfulness into clinical psychiatry and psychology. Buddhism has helped to inform many mental health theories and therapies. However, the ethical and moral codes of conduct that drive Buddhist practices are no longer integrated into the mindfulness practices most-often taught in the Western world.[4] Therefore, Western mindfulness is often a non-spiritual practice for mental wellness.

Mindfulness aims to cultivate present moment awareness both within the body and the environment.[5] However, awareness is only the first element. Non-judgmental acceptance of the present moment is essential for true mindfulness to occur. Thoughts and feelings are explored without an emphasis on right, wrong, past, or future.

The only necessary condition for mindfulness to occur is non-judgmental acceptance and awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. It does not need to be complex even though structured programs exist.

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How Mindfulness Helps Your Mental Wellness

Along with MBSR, other models have been developed and adapted for use by clinical counselors, psychologists, and therapists. These include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).[6]

Structured models of mindfulness allow researchers to study its benefits. Research has uncovered an abundance of benefits including mental, physical, cognitive, and spiritual. The following is not a comprehensive list of all its benefits, but it will begin to uncover how mindfulness helps mental wellness.

Benefits on Your Mental Health

Practicing mindfulness can have positive impacts on mental health. It has been positively associated with desirable traits, such as:

  • Autonomy
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Competence
  • Empathy
  • Optimism

Mindfulness helps to improve self-esteem, increase life satisfaction and enhance self-compassion. It is associated with pleasant emotions and mood. Overall, people who practice this appear to be happier and experience more joy in life. Not only does it increase happiness but it may also ward off negativity.

Mindfulness helps individuals to let go of negative thoughts and regulate emotions. For example, it may decrease fear, stress, worry, anger, and anxiety. It also helps to reduce rumination, which is a repetition of negative thoughts in the mind.

MBSR was originally designed to treat chronic pain. It has since evolved to include the treatment of anxiety and depression. Clinical studies have shown that MBSR is linked with:

  • Reduced chronic pain and improved quality of life
  • Decreased risk of relapse in depression
  • Reduced negative thinking in anxiety disorders
  • Prevention of major depressive disorders
  • Reducing substance-use frequency and cravings

However, more research is needed before these clinical studies can be generalized to the public. Nevertheless, there is promising evidence to suggest MBSR may be beneficial for mental health.[7]

Benefits on Your Cognitive Health

Mindfulness has many important benefits for cognitive health as well. In a study of college students, mindfulness increased performance in attention and persistence. Another study found that individuals who practice it have increased cognitive flexibility. A brain scan found increased thickness in areas of the brain related to attention, interception, and sensory processing.[8]

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To explain this another way, practicing mindfulness can improve the ability to shift from one task to the next, increase attention span and increase awareness of bodily sensations and the environment. Therefore, it has the potential to literally change your brain for the better.

Harvard researchers are also interested in studies of the brain and mindfulness. One researcher studied how brain changes are sustained even when individuals are not engaged in mindfulness. Their research suggests that its benefits extend beyond the moments of mindfulness.[9]

Another study found that the benefits of mindfulness training lasted up to five years. In this particular case, individuals participating in mindfulness activities showed increased attention-span. Mindfulness has also been shown to increase problem-solving and decrease mind wandering.[10]

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways. However, most practices include these elements:

  • An object to focus awareness on (breath, body, thoughts, sounds)
  • Awareness of the present moment
  • Openness to experience whatever comes up
  • Acceptance that the mind will wander
  • The intention to return awareness to the object of focus whenever the mind wanders

A practice that encompasses these elements is typically called mindfulness meditation. Most mindfulness meditations will be practiced between 5 to 50 minutes, per day.[11]

There is truly no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. Most mindfulness meditations are done seated with an object of focus related to the breath, body, thoughts, emotions, or sounds. However, daily activities such as walking or eating can be practiced as a form of mindfulness meditation, as long as the aforementioned elements are in place.

Four Mindfulness Meditations and Their Benefits

Not all forms of mindfulness are created equal. Each practice has unique goals, structure, and benefits. The following four mindfulness meditations are linked with improved mental wellness related to vitality, happiness, and attention.

The results come from a study designed to explore the benefits of these four practices. All of these stem from traditional Buddhist practices.[12]

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1. Loving-Kindness Meditation

Loving-kindness is a form of meditation that focuses on sending love and compassion to others. It may begin with kindness for the self and extend outward towards close family and friends, communities, nations, and the world. Loving-kindness may even involve sending love and compassion towards enemies.

The study found that eight-weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of closeness to others. However, it did not reduce negative feelings towards enemies. Additionally, one week of loving-kindness mixed with compassion training increased the amount of positive feelings participants experienced.[13]

2. Breathing Meditation

Breathing meditation is a practice where the focus remains on the breath. Whenever the mind begins to wander, the attention is brought back to the breath.

In many different mindfulness and yoga practices, specific breathing (pranayama) practices are taught. However, for beginners, simple diaphragmatic breathing that focuses on each inhale and exhale is sufficient.

The effects of breathing meditation relate to attention. Breathing meditation is linked to changes in the way information is processed. Buddhist monks who practiced breathing meditation were able to process a greater amount of information than monks who practiced compassion meditation.

3. Body Scan Meditation

A body scan is as simple as it sounds. Attention is brought to each part of the body. Participants can choose to start from the top of the head or the bottom of the feet. It can be helpful to imagine a warmth or a color spreading from one body part to the next as each part begins to relax.

When body scan and breathing are combined, there are many benefits. Interoceptive sensitivity is the mind’s ability to focus on bodily cues. It is strengthened by body scanning. Body scanning also helps with attention and focus.[14]

4. Observing Thoughts Meditation

In observing thoughts meditation, the focus is on the thoughts. This is an opportunity to practice non-judgmental observation. It is also a practice of non-attachment.

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Within the study, participants practiced structured observation of thoughts. First, they brought their attention to their thoughts and labeled them within several categories: past, present, future, self, or others. Then, they practiced observing their thoughts without an emotional reaction.[15]

The benefits of this practice were robust. First, participants showed great improvement in the ability to observe their thoughts without judgment. Second, the practice greatly reduced rumination. As a result, participants had fewer emotional reactions to their thoughts and developed greater self-awareness around their thinking patterns.

In summary, there are many different ways to practice mindfulness meditation. The choice may be determined by the benefits each practice offers. For example, body scanning can increase bodily awareness. Thought-observation can increase self-awareness and decrease rumination. Regardless, every practice may increase positivity, energy, and focus.[16]

Considerations Before You Begin Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is still a relatively new concept in clinical research. Critics worry that its benefits have been overstated. There is also concern that the Western world has changed it into something most Buddhists would not recognize.[17]

Mindfulness is a state of mind that builds self-awareness. As a result, it may force individuals to face difficult emotions, memories, and thoughts. In a study of long-term, intense mindfulness practices, 60% of participants reported at least one negative outcome. Some cases are related to depression, anxiety, and psychosis.[18]

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental wellness. Mindfulness offering promising results but there are also risks involved. Working with a therapist may be a great way to start a mindfulness practice while monitoring for risk.

Final Thoughts

Mindfulness is a powerful practice that has deep roots in Buddhism. It is a practice of present-moment awareness, acceptance of the present moment, and non-judgment of thoughts, emotions, or circumstances.

It has many benefits that may increase mental wellness. However, there are also some risks to consider. Overall, you should consider your unique profile before beginning a practice or consider working with a therapist at the start.

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More About Practicing Mindfulness

Featured photo credit: Simon Migaj via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[2] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[3] Greater Good Magazine: What is Mindfulness?
[4] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[5] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[6] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[7] NCBI: Mindfulness Meditation and Psychopathology
[8] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[9] The Harvard Gazette: When Science Meets Mindfulness
[10] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[11] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[12] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[13] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[14] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[15] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[16] Greater Good Magazine: How to Choose a Type of Mindfulness Meditation
[17] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?
[18] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?

More by this author

Olivia Schnur

Olivia is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor and Registered Yoga Teacher. She writes about healing, health and happiness.

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Published on October 15, 2021

Does Anxiety Make You Tired And Why?

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Does Anxiety Make You Tired And Why?

When you think of anxiety, several scenarios may come to mind: the endless tossing and turning of a restless night, dread over potential future events, pandemic-related overwhelm, or full-blown panic attacks. Even if you’re not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you’ve likely experienced anxiety symptoms at some point in your life. In these situations, you might feel a queasiness in your stomach, racing heartbeat, excessive sweating, chest tightness, some tension in your jaw/neck/shoulders, or worrisome thoughts as you prepare for the worst possible scenario. But does anxiety also make you tired?

After experiencing these symptoms, you may indeed feel fatigued. The sensation could fall anywhere on the exhaustion spectrum, from feeling like you just ran a marathon and need to sleep for two days, to just a little worn down and wanting a quick nap to recover.

Below are 7 ways anxiety zaps your energy and how to restore it.

1. Stress Hormone Overload

Anxiety can make you tired via overloading your body with stress hormones. The “fight or flight” response is a key connection between anxiety and fatigue. In fact, this process is made up of three stages: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion. Anxiety triggers our body systems to go into high alert. This is a natural, involuntary reaction that developed in the human brain for survival.

When humans lived with the real, imminent threat of being attacked by a predator, it made sense for our bodies to spring into action without much preparatory thought. Such dangers are rare in modern times, but our brains continue to respond in the same way they did thousands of years ago.

The hormones and chemicals that flood our bodies to prepare us for safety can both affect and be affected by several body systems, and this interaction itself contributes to exhaustion. Adrenaline and cortisol are the two most notable hormones to address here. First, adrenaline is sent out, tensing the muscles and increasing heart rate and blood pressure in preparation to run. Later in the stress response, cortisol is released, enhancing the brain’s use of glucose. This is one of our main fuel sources, so it’s no wonder this contributes to fatigue (see #2).

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You can regulate baseline levels of these stress hormones by regularly practicing yoga, breathwork, meditation, and/or engaging in aerobic exercise.[1] It’s easier to lean into these routines for relief during stress when you’ve already mastered using them during times when you feel calm.

2. Elevated Blood Sugar Levels

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), which is shown to be associated with anxiety in diabetic patients.[2] Many people who experience hyperglycemia report feeling tired all the time regardless of their quantity or quality of sleep, nutrition, or exercise.

Although this connection has shown more prevalent and prolonged effects in diabetics, it also occurs with nondiabetics exposed to psychiatric stress.[3] In fact, for all people, the natural stress response elevates blood pressure and heart rate as well as cortisol levels, all of which increase blood sugar levels.[4] This means that anxiety causes a double-hit of exhaustion related to blood sugar fluctuations.

Instead of reaching for comfort foods like chocolate during times of stress, take a calming walk around the block. Gentle movement alone is a great stress reliever that incidentally also helps to regulate blood sugars.[5]

3. Negative Mindset

Anxiety can also make you tired because of repetitive negative thinking (RNT), which is a common symptom of anxiety. RNT involves continuous thoughts via rumination (dwelling on sad or dark thoughts focused on the past) and worry (angst regarding the future). Some researchers argue that having a longtime habit of RNT can harm the brain’s capacity to think, reason, and form memories.[6] While the brain is busy using its energy stores to fuel negative thought patterns, the energy available for these other more productive endeavors is thereby reduced.

Negative thoughts can also disrupt or prevent healthy sleep patterns, keeping our minds racing at night and effectively wreaking havoc on daytime energy. (See #7)

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Reduce these patterns by reframing your feelings over anxious thoughts. Instead of staying stuck on “what if,” focus on what you can do in the here and now. What activity can you engage in for five minutes (or more) that brings you joy? What are you grateful for, no matter what’s going on around you?

4. Digestive Issues

It’s common for people to experience both intestinal and mental issues simultaneously. This suggests a strong connection between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is known as the gut-brain axis.[7] Simply put, what happens in our digestive tract (and as a result of what we eat) affects the brain and vice versa.

The gut microbiota is a complex population of GI tract microorganisms. When its balance is altered, the body can develop conditions that affect the gut-brain-endocrine relationship. The endocrine system produces and manages adrenaline, for starters. And the gut bacteria’s production of feel-good hormones (serotonin and dopamine—see #5) ties into this relationship as well.

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors are also found in gut bacteria. GABA is a natural brain relaxant that makes us feel good by helping the body to unwind after a stress-induced neurotransmitter release (e.g., cortisol and adrenaline). When GABA activity is low, it leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and mood disorders. These are just a few of the manifestations that demonstrate how gut bacteria influences behavior. All of these contribute to feeling both physically and mentally tired.

You can minimize the symptoms of depression and anxiety by keeping your gut microbiota balanced with probiotic-rich fermented foods. Yogurt with live cultures, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, miso soup, and tempeh are great foods to include in your diet.[8]

5. Depression

Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. Research continues to indicate a complex relationship between depression and decreased serotonin—a key neurotransmitter for regulating mood and feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Anxiety is also a direct symptom of serotonin deficiency. Serotonin helps with healthy sleep, mood, and digestion.

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Serotonin is produced in the gut, almost exclusively, at an estimated 90 percent. However, a small quantity is also produced in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that is pivotal for transmitting energy balance signals. This small cone-shaped structure receives and relays signals transmitted via the vagus nerve from the gastrointestinal tract. It has a central role in mediating stress responses, regulating sleep, and establishing circadian rhythms. It senses and responds to a myriad of circulating hormones and nutrients, directly affecting our mood and energy.[9]

Dopamine is another mood-boosting neurochemical that is depleted in depression. It creates feelings of alertness and wakefulness and, when the body is operating normally, is released in higher amounts in the morning (allowing for daytime energy) and lower at night (preparing for healthy sleep). Stress is one factor that can deplete dopamine, thereby leading to depression, sleep disorders, and fatigue.

Studies show that dopamine levels in the brain can be elevated by increasing dietary intake of tyrosine and phenylalanine.[10] Both of these amino acids are naturally found in protein-rich foods like turkey, beef, eggs, dairy, soy, peas, lentils, and beans.

6. Breathing Problems

Breathlessness and anxiety are closely linked, and this is one of the ways anxiety can make you feel tired. Anxiety can lead to shallow breathing, which can cause shortness of breath while feeling breathless can exacerbate anxiety.[11] It’s a vicious cycle that often leads people to take rapid and shallow breaths, breathing into their upper chest and shoulders.

This type of breathing minimizes oxygen intake and usability. Despite comprising only two percent of the body, our brains consume 20 percent of the body’s oxygen supply. Oxygen is fuel for both mental and physical tasks. When breathing patterns compromise healthy oxygen levels, this can cause considerable fatigue.[12]

End the anxiety-fatigue cycle with focused breathing exercises. It’s important to practice this regularly while you’re not experiencing anxiety or stress, as this will help you to be prepared should a moment of breathless anxiety hit unexpectedly.

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There are several different styles of breathing exercises. There’s an easy one to try, called “Resonant Breathing.” Simply breathe in slowly through your nose as you count to five, then exhale for a count of five. Repeat this for a few minutes. It’s helpful to bring your awareness to any tension, deliberately relaxing your neck, shoulders, and jaw in particular.

7. Sleep Issues

Most of the elements we’ve already discussed inherently tie into sleep issues, which is often the reason why anxiety can make you feel tired. But it’s important to note that this is not always a directly linear cause-and-effect process. Much of it is cyclic. If we don’t get enough quality sleep, we increase our risk of excessive cortisol production, elevated blood pressure and blood sugar levels, depressed mood and mindset disorders, and dysregulation of appetite/craving hormones that affect our digestive health.

Sleep is obviously the number one antidote to feeling tired as a result of anxiety. But at the same time, many of these elements—including anxiety itself—lead to less-than-restorative sleep. We can improve our energy levels by addressing each element discussed here, as well as taking a proactive approach to our sleep health.

One simple habit to help recalibrate your circadian rhythm for healthy sleep patterns is to get outside in the morning. Sunlight exposure in the early hours of the day regulates melatonin production, helping us to feel sleepy at night.

You Don’t Have to Live Your Life Anxious and Exhausted

Times of extreme stress, like driving in heavy traffic or nerve-wracking situations like public speaking, can easily induce an anxiety response. Even “normal” everyday stressors, like feeling overwhelmed with work and home responsibilities, can build up to anxious feelings over time.

Our bodies’ response to stress and anxiety affects many of its functions in complex ways. When we unravel the interconnections of these processes, we can see how each part plays an intrinsic role in contributing to fatigue. By addressing each element individually, we can make simple lifestyle changes that resolve anxiety and diminish the ways it makes us tired as a result.

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More Tips on Coping With Anxiety

Featured photo credit: Joice Kelly via unsplash.com

Reference

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