By: Nick Wignall
Photo by Cody Black on Unsplash
It seems like everywhere we turn these days people are talking about the benefits of mindfulness. But how do we know if these supposed mindfulness benefits are really legitimate or not?
While there are a lot of baseless claims about mindfulness out there, there are also some very real benefits and positive effects of mindfulness that have documented by scientific research.
From losing weight and falling asleep faster to reduced anxiety and lower blood pressure, here are 12 science-backed ways mindfulness can improve your life.
1. Control Your Temper
One of the most frequently asked questions I get as a psychologist and writer is this: ‘How can I have less conflict in my relationship with my husband/wife?’ Unchecked anger is toxic in almost any area of life. But one of the places it’s most troublesome is in relationships.
Maybe things start with a mildly sarcastic comment, which gets met with an irritated rebuke, which leads to defensiveness all the way around, and eventually an angry outburst, typically in the form of words or behaviour we can’t take back. These anger-based actions grind down a relationship over time and usually lead to a lot of guilt, shame, and anxiety in the aftermath.
Turns out, one of the best ways to lessen anger, control your temper, and reduce conflict in general, is to practice mindfulness. One study found that the mindfulness of partners was associated with lower levels of reactivity and conflict in marriages. And more generally, there’s evidence that mindfulness lessens aggressive responses to provocations.
2. Fend Off Depression
We’ve known for a while now that mindfulness meditation can be helpful for depression, especially chronic recurring depression. There’s a wonderful book called The Mindful Way Through Depression that lays out how to apply mindfulness principles and practice to cope better with depression.
But more recently, some researchers are beginning to explore how exactly mindfulness exerts its beneficial effects on depression. They hope that by coming to a more refined understanding of the neural mechanisms of mindfulness, they’ll be able to better apply it to a wider range of people who suffer from depression.
3. Lower Your Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is an important risk factor for stroke and cardiovascular disease, two of the leading causes of death in the country. And while there are effective medications to help manage high blood pressure, lifestyle factors play a large role as well and can help improve blood pressure in addition to the beneficial effects of medication.
Over the past couple decades, a lot of research has shown a connection between the regular practice of mindfulness meditation and lower blood pressure. A recent meta-analysis looked at all of this data combined and found that indeed there was a beneficial effect of mindfulness on blood pressure scores.
4. Reduce Worry and Anxiety
While it’s well-known that there are many mindfulness benefits regarding mental health difficulties in general — including anxiety — one researcher at Harvard Medical School has found specific mindfulness benefits for generalized anxiety and excessive worry.
Most struggles with anxiety and worry are the result of overthinking. Something initially causes a burst of worry or anxiety and we rush in to make things better by trying to think our way out of it. Unfortunately, trying to control or fix our anxiety only makes it worse, which is where mindfulness comes in.
By definition, mindfulness helps people to simply become aware of their thoughts and emotions without reacting to them. And it’s this non-reactance which appears to be so beneficial, especially for folks who struggle with chronic worry and generalized anxiety.
5. Set Boundaries Assertively
Saying “No” can be surprisingly hard. Whether it’s taking a pass on hosting Christmas dinner for the 14th year in a row or declining an invitation to go out on Friday night in favour of curling up with a good book, letting people know where we really stand (including what we don’t want) is tough.
Which is why most of us cave in situations like this. We go with the flow and acquiesce to other people’s wants because saying no would require tolerating some pretty uncomfortable emotions, at least in the short-term. Enter mindfulness.
When we’re skilled at approaching situations from a more mindful perspective, our capacity to tolerate uncomfortable emotions in favour of what’s really important to us goes up. Even better, there’s some evidence that mindfulness leads to improved communication and assertiveness in speech specifically.
6. Lose Weight
Overeating is a complex phenomenon with a lot of variables and moving parts. But for most of us, eating too much often involves a kind of mindlessness. We find ourselves eating more than we set out to or even more than we really want to.
Because eating is such a routine and regular activity, it’s easy to simply end up doing it, as if we’re on auto-pilot. Unfortunately, this automatic approach to eating makes it hard to keep our best intentions for health and weight loss in mind.
Recently, a couple of researchers from Duke and Indiana State University found that teaching basic mindfulness strategies to people who struggled with their eating habits resulted in lower rates of problematic eating as well as a better outlook on themselves and their eating behaviours.
7. Lower Stress
Everybody seems to be feeling more and more stressed these days. Some of that increased stress may be related to more macro concerns — the economy, climate change, global poverty, etc. But much of our overall stress burden comes from more garden-variety daily stressors — our spouse forgetting to stop for milk on the way home… again!, the kids having to be at 14 different activities each week, our boss’ daily nagging about our TPS reports, etc.
Our lives are increasingly busy and full, leaving us with a kind of hard-to-get-a-breath feeling. Just getting through the day is exhausting — mentally and physically — because our days seem so crowded and cluttered.
Interestingly, a recent study found that while mindfulness may not change the actual number of stressors in your life (obviously), it can help us to respond better and more calmly to stressful events. And when we handle stressors more effectively, we tend to experience less stress itself.
8. Enjoy Sex More
Let’s reverse engineer this one: If you had to think of a way to minimize people’s enjoyment of sex, what would you do? My answer: Make them really anxious and stressed-out, ideally hyper-concerned with their performance and how they were being evaluated.
You don’t have to be a sex therapist to see how stress and anxiety get in the way of enjoyment of sex. Now if only there was a reliable way to practice staying present and in the moment rather than in our heads worrying and stressing, we’d probably enjoy sex a lot more… Oh wait, there is — it’s mindfulness!
Yes, mindfulness will help you learn how to train your attention, and if you can keep your attention in the moment rather than worrying about how you’re performing or what your partner thinks of you, you’re all but guaranteed to enjoy sex (and the rest of life) a lot more.
But don’t take my word for it. Researchers at Brown University came to the same conclusion.
9. Improve Your Focus and Concentration
If you find yourself easily distracted and have a difficult time staying focused and concentrating, well, join the club. In today’s increasingly busy and distracted (and distracting) world, it’s harder than ever to stay focused on what matters most and hold our attention there, whether it’s work, relationships, or our studies.
The ability to control and regulate our attention is as powerful a skill as any we possess. And thankfully, like many skills, it’s highly trainable. We can teach ourselves to maintain focus and concentrate for longer, to resist procrastination, and to keep our most important priorities front and centre in our minds.
And mindfulness, it seems, is one of the best ways to practice and strengthen our attentional muscle. That’s what the research from a couple of scientists who studied the relationship between mindfulness meditation and attentional abilities suggests anyway. They found that experienced practitioners of mindfulness meditation had significantly higher scores across a range of tests and measures of attention and cognitive flexibility.
10. Be a Better Listener
Most of us know how important effective communication is. And chances are, we know that being a good listener is a vital part of building positive relationships and communicating well with people. Especially those who play an important part in our lives — spouses, employers, children, friends, etc.
But despite the common wisdom that being a good listener is important, how to actually do it or improve in that area can be a bit of a mystery.
Interestingly, researchers at the University of Minnesota have done some preliminary work on the role of mindfulness in effective communication and listening skills.
Their research suggests some mindfulness benefits for better communication and active listening specifically via two sub-skills involved in mindfulness: describing and observing. In other words, mindfulness helps you to be a better listener (and therefore communicator) by teaching you to get better at carefully observing what’s going on in a conversation and articulating those observations.
11. Fall Asleep Faster
You’ve had a brutally long-stressful day, you just got all the dishes washed and kids into bed, finished responding to last-minute emails for work, and finally, you get to sink into bed. And while you’re undoubtedly exhausted, for some reason your mind just doesn’t want to shut off and fall asleep.
As you lay in bed trying to get some rest, your mind bombards you with all manner of worries and concerns, from what time you need to be at tomorrow’s staff meeting all the way up to the possibility of nuclear fallout and the end of life on earth as we know it. Sleep psychologists call this state Tired but Wired. You’re physically exhausted but, because of an overactive mind, your body’s natural desire to sleep gets suppressed.
Well, there’s good news from a group of researchers at USC and UCLA who found that a brief mindfulness intervention improved overall sleep quality and daytime fatigue among their study participants.