The Science of Mindfulness

Best way to stick with something hard: Accept that it's hard

There’s a great psychological misconception that greater motivation equals greater behavior change. Bot for many things - smoking, eating, drinking, browsing the internet - no matter how motivated to say no we are, it can still be hard to follow through. In past research, mindfulness has been linked to better success rates of quitting smoking. A recently published study examined what about mindfulness helped people stick to the hard task of quitting.

The measures the researchers looked at were: Observing, Describing, Acting With Awareness, Nonjudging, and Nonreactivity. Researchers found that the non-judging aspect uniquely predicted better likelihood of stay away from cigarettes up to 26 weeks after quitting. Non-judging is the practice of accepting our thoughts and feelings without evaluating them. Some example judgments might be: “Wow, this pain is really terrible. I wonder if this pain will ever end. Why do I deserve this? Why did I get myself into this position - I should have done x, y, or z. I’m so irresponsible. I don’t feel like anyone understands what I’m going through.” And so on. The mind has a fantastic way of taking a physical sensation and wrapping it up in a whole number of judgments and narratives.

Mindfulness is the practice of observing what comes up - the feelings of withdrawal, of wanting, the difficulty of saying no, even our own thoughts - and accepting that they’re there without judging them as good or bad, or needing them to stay or go away. Often when we drop the judgment around our experience, we gain more space to hold it and then let it pass.

Whether or not you’re trying to quit smoking, try it out for yourself and see what happens. What does it feel like to want that piece chocolate cake? What does it feel like to resist checking your email one more time before sitting down to start that project? See if you can accept whatever’s there without judging it. Research suggests that might just be the key to sticking with the action you really want to take.


Keryn Breiterman-Loader
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Dealing with your emotions: facebook v. mindfulness

It can be so tempting, when we feel upset, stressed, or sad, to try and comfort ourselves through eating, drinking, watching television, browsing the internet, or our own drug of choice. These things aren’t inherently bad, but they can be problematic when we become addicted to them, and when they prevent us from facing our experience and moving on. Distracting ourselves from our own negative emotions is not by any means a new phenomenon. However, the latest distraction addiction of the modern day is social media, especially big among teens, and younger adults.

Emotion focused coping is the psychology term used to describe this sort of coping - where we try and get rid of a negative experience by simply making the bad feeling go away. Research has found that this form of coping isn’t so effective in the long run, because we haven’t actually dealt with the source of our distress.

In many ways, mindfulness is the opposite of distraction. If distraction is bringing your attention away from your present experience, mindfulness is the practice of continually bringing your attention to your present experience (with non-judgment of course). Because of this, researchers decided to investigate the relationship between social media addiction and mindfulness.

Results showed, not surprisingly, that there is a strong negative correlation between mindfulness and social media addiction. Mindfulness and emotion focused coping were negatively correlated, while social media addiction and emotion focused coping were positively correlated. Finally, researches looked at emotional exhaustion, which is a major contributor to workplace burnout. They found a negative correlation between mindfulness and emotional exhaustion. Because this research was done with a one time questionnaire, we can't know the causal relationship between these variables. But it does indicate that when you're feeling upset and go to automatically open facebook, it might be worth it to take a few mindful breaths.


Keryn Breiterman-Loader
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I need to write a paper: let's see how many other things can I think about.

You’re in college sitting at your desk. You're about to start writing a paper or study for an exam, when suddenly the following questions become very important: What should I eat for dinner? What did my roommate mean earlier by that comment? When is that exam for that other class? I didn’t do so well on the last assignment…. Have I called my mom yet? For undergraduate students (and really for all of us), mind wandering can keep us from from getting the important things done. A recent study at the University of Miami investigated whether a 7 week mindfulness training developed specifically for undergraduates would help increase students' focus, and reduce their mind wandering.

The experimenters tested students’ attention and working memory both before and after the 7 week training. Though there was no significant difference in working memory, there was a significant difference in student’s ability to focus and sustain their attention. While those in the control group actually got worse after the 7 weeks, those in the mindfulness training scored better on the attentional task as well as reported less mind wandering during the task. Trainings like this could be promising for undergraduate students, for whom so much of their academic success depends on their ability to sit down and focus. Right after they figure out what they're eating for dinner.


Keryn Breiterman-Loader
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How mindfulness improves your health

Mindfulness has been shown to reduce disease and improve health, having an impact on HIV-pathogenesis, depression, inflammation, psoriasis, and drug abuse amongst others. How does this work exactly? That’s what David Creswell and Emily K. Lindsay from Carnegie Mellon University explored in their recently published paper.

The working hypothesis is this: the body’s stress response has a negative impact on many diseases, and since mindfulness reduces stress, it therefore reduces disease. In studies looking at the effects of mindfulness on disease, mindfulness has the biggest impact on participants who are very stressed. Further, mindfulness helps most with diseases that are triggered or exacerbated by stress.

Creswell and Lindsay offer some specifics on how this might be possible. Overall, the thinking is that mindfulness changes the way we process stress in the brain, which then impacts our body’s stress response. Mindfulness helps activate the emotion regulation systems in our pre-frontal cortex. This is a much newer part of our brain (evolutionarily speaking) and regulates other parts of our brain. So for example, we may be emotionally triggered by something, and the deeper, more ancient parts of our brains are on a run away train with anger or fear. Our pre-frontal cortex will metaphorically step in and say “whoa whoa whoa, let’s take a look at what’s actually happening here. Let’s make some sense of it and maybe we’re actually safer than we thought, old brain parts, and we don’t need to get so carried away.” So greater activation in the pre-frontal cortex can help us regulate stress in this way. Research also supports that mindfulness can reduce the reactivity of those old, deep parts of the brain (e.g. the amygdala) in the first place.

Of course these brain systems are highly connected to the body. So when our brain gives the signal: “Things aren’t safe out there, prepare the troops!”, the body gets activated to prepare for some kind of attack. Mindfulness may reduce the strength of this connection, so that our bodies are less reactive to perceived stressors. Our bodies have a sympathetic nervous system response - that’s the “we’re preparing troops for battle” response. We also have a parasympathetic nervous system response - this is the “all is safe, so lets get some rest and build our reserves” kind of response. Initial research suggests that mindfulness training can reduce our sympathetic response to acute stressors as well as increase our parasympathetic activation. Basically, this means our bodies are able to live more of the time in a state of recovery and rebuilding, rather than one preparing for danger. This is important, because our body’s “prepare for danger” response, such as the release of the hormones norepinephrine and cortisol, can accelerate pathogenic processes and increase inflammation, which is bad news for many diseases. Bottom line: take a breath. Living in a calmer state can do wonders for your own strength and healing.


Keryn Breiterman-Loader
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Another drink? Nah man, I'm good with just some breathing

Colleges and universities across the country spend a lot of time and resources addressing this common problem: binge drinking. Binge drinking can hinder students’ learning and academic achievement. Further alarming is how binge drinking leads to bodily injury, sexual assault, and even death. A complex problem with many roots, one team of researchers investigated the impact of a 4-week mindfulness intervention on students’ level of binge drinking.

Results indicated that after the intervention, students in the mindfulness intervention group reported significantly less binge drinking and fewer negative consequences of drinking. Further, they had increased levels of self-efficacy and dispositional mindfulness than the control group.

The authors of the study didn’t fully explore why the mindfulness intervention was successful, so here's a bit of back story based on other research and a plethora of anecdotal evidence. Binge drinking in college students (as well as adults) is often a reaction to difficult emotions - stress, overwhelm, uncertainty about belonging, etc. So one potential mechanism of why the intervention worked would be mindfulness’ strength as an emotion regulation skill. All of us to one degree or another try to soothe ourselves or escape from the difficulty of our current experience in one way or another - chocolate cake, TV, alcohol. Being mindful of our feelings, needs, and behaviors, we can begin to question whether having that next drink, or eating that entire cake is really going to help us feel better. And learning more skillful ways to soothe ourselves (i.e. breath and body practices, cognitive reframing, self-compassion, social connection), then we can be more efficacious in supporting ourselves through the often difficult situations we face in our lives.


Keryn Breiterman-Loader
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Does virtual mindfulness translate to real mindfulness?

Lots of studies investigate the benefits of mindfulness and how it helps us live happier, healthier lives. So the question is, how can we get it? Up till now, most mindfulness practices were taught in person, but a new study investigated whether mindfulness could be taught online, and if learned online, will it still have the same benefits?

This particular study focused on a more clinical population of participants who were depressed or at risk for depression. Participants went through an 8 session web-based version of MBCT (Mindful Mood Balance, or MMB). After the 8 weeks, participants showed a reduction in depressive symptoms. Though technology may never replicate the presence of a human, this study shows promising results for the efficacy of this online program.


Keryn Breiterman-Loader
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Aerobic exercise increases mindfulness

So by this point you probably know that mindfulness is good for you. It reduces depression and anxiety, prevents diseases, helps you do better at work or school, and so the list goes on. But how do we actually become more mindful? Do we have to sit down and meditate every day or are there other strategies? Some researchers in Germany investigated this question. Specifically, they looked to see if regular aerobic exercise could do the trick.

Participants were randomly split into three groups: an aerobic exercise group, a relaxation training group, and a waitlist control group (i.e. received no intervention, but were offered one of the interventions after the experiment ended). All participants’ level of mindfulness was measured before and after the 12-week long intervention. Findings showed that indeed, regular aerobic exercise was correlated with an increase in dispositional mindfulness. This was especially powerful for those participants who were most inactive before the experiment.

The researchers also measured changes in mental and physical wellbeing. They found that increases in mindfulness were associated with increases in mental wellbeing, however, were not correlated with changes in physical wellbeing. So even if that new exercise regimen isn’t really helping you keep off those pounds, it may still be working out your mind. So stick with it!


Keryn Breiterman-Loader
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Conversing with strangers - noticing if it's fun...or not

Mindfulness of often thought of as a seated, contemplative practice, however it is also a way of engaging with the world. This lifestyle mindfulness, so to say, involves paying close attention to the world around us, so that we notice new things and are attuned to variation and change. A recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard investigated how this sort of mindfulness relates to our relationships. In particular they were interested in synchronicities, or the way people tend to unconsciously coordinate their behavior in conversations.

In a fun experiment, participants were split into a mindful treatment group and a control group, and within each group were paired off to have conversations with each other. Participants were then separated, completed another task, and then were allowed to return to resume their conversations. Results showed that people in the control group returned to their partners at a relatively uniform amount of time, while those in the mindfulness group showed much more variation in how long they took to return.

Researchers interpreted this to mean that mindfulness increased peoples awareness of whether they were actually enjoying the conversation or not, with those who returned faster reporting that they liked their partner more compared to those who were slower to return. In the control group, however, all participants returned about at the same time.

At the end of the experiment, those high in mindfulness enjoyed their conversation more and felt more comfortable with their partners. Additionally, partners in the mindfulness group showed more closely matching heart rates than partners in the control group.



Keryn Breiterman-Loader
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Mindfulness Helps Reduce Gambling

Recent research investigated whether mindfulness might be a useful intervention to help people stop gambling. Compared to a waitlist control group, those in a mindfulness enhanced cognitive behavioral program showed significantly reduced gambling and gambling urges. At a 3-month follow-up, both groups still showed improvements, and there was a decrease in the number of participants meeting criteria for pathological gambling.

Further, those participants who reported some mindfulness practice even after the intervention ended showed significantly better outcomes than participants who reported no mindfulness practice after the completion of the program. This may indicate the important of practice, as well as the direct role of mindfulness in results.

Keryn Breiterman-Loader
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Mindfulness Helps Reduce Emotional Eating

Very few of us only eat when we’re hungry and then stop eating once we’re full. We also have an emotional relationship to food. Some of us eat as a response to stress and anxiety, some of us don’t eat as a response to stress and anxiety. Some of us try to restrict our food consumption to lose weight but then binge eat when we feel so deprived and starved. These kinds for relationships with food aren’t always so healthy for our bodies (have you ever heard anyone say “Oh wow I’m feeling so stressed, please pass me that bowl of sautéed broccoli and quinoa?”), and using food generally doesn’t resolve our emotional distress.

A recent review article examined 14 different published studies that all used mindfulness as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, or weight change. Results indicate that mindfulness interventions successfully reduce binge eating and emotional eating, but the jury’s still out for effectiveness in weight loss. The mechanism through which mindfulness helps us have a more emotionally healthy relationship with food was not discussed at length in the paper. One hypothesis is that mindfulness gives us a better strategy for dealing with our negative emotions and thus reduces our need to use food as a coping strategy. This could be similar to findings in studies on mindfulness and alcohol consumption.

Keryn Breiterman-Loader
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