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The Psychology Behind Mindfulness


You know those nights when you’re lying in bed (for what feels like forever!) and you just cannot fall asleep? All the thoughts about the day and whatever else might be popping into your head are swimming through your mind and keeping you awake…

It turns out mindfulness has been found to help people quiet those thoughts that keep them awake. The practice of mindfulness has been studied for use in treating all kinds of maladies, such as depression and stress as well as for use with patients suffering from physical conditions such as chronic pain, cancer, or HIV. This article asserts that it has also been found beneficial in helping with weight loss and maintaining an exercise program. The article also notes the technique’s usefulness in treating symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disturbances. So, the question is, why? And how?

Mindfulness relies on the ability to focus attention on your awareness of the current moment. You allow yourself to be aware of any and all thoughts, feelings, and experiences you may have in order to process them without evaluating them critically. In essence, it relies on the ability to focus attention and maintain enough concentration so that you can seize control of thoughts that enter your awareness (which obviously takes a lot of practice). The more you practice mindfulness, the more you will prime the neural networks required for the process of identifying and acknowledging thoughts without criticizing them. Given all this, it makes sense that the technique might be effective in treating symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disturbances. By shifting the focus of your attention and being more aware of the current moment (instead of whatever thoughts are keeping you awake), you may be able to better control your emotional responses to your thoughts.

The trick to mindfulness is the promotion of increased awareness of thoughts in order to promote better control over emotional responses to them. This is why mindfulness has been used as a treatment for anxiety disorders as well. The ruminative thinking that keeps us awake at night is a major cause of insomnia and also present in many anxiety disorders. The idea is that the ability to acknowledge thoughts in a different way, without driving yourself crazy over them, will ease anxiety (which is caused by this type of thinking). In order to do this, mindfulness encourages a sort of selective attention in which you focus your attention on something such as breathing, instead of rumination.

Okay, that explains why mindfulness is effective. But what types of strategies do people use?

Breathing is only one of many techniques you can use in order to focus your attention and be more aware of what is currently happening. (This short video explains how to do a common breathing exercise called the “4-7-8 Breath.”) Meditation is the technique that is perhaps the most talked about. Movement exercises can also be helpful.

In fact, mindfulness has been shown to have an impact on the functioning of the brain in general. For example, This article says that people who meditate show superior performance on tasks associated with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which deals with tasks related to self-regulation, the ability to direct attention, behavior and suppress immediate responses, and the ability to alternate strategies quickly. These skills are all necessary to exercise mindfulness and you would develop them the more you practice the technique.

In addition, when practiced regularly, mindfulness also leads to a weakening in the “functional connectivity” between the amygdala and the rest of the brain and a strengthening in the “functional connectivity” among areas associated with attention and concentration. So, “mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness, says.

So, next time your thoughts keep you awake, maybe consider being more mindful about what you are thinking. Like every other skill, it may take some practice before you start reaping the rewards from practicing mindfulness, but who knows what will happen once you’re able to focus your attention more effectively.

What do you think? Do you practice mindfulness or think it could be useful?