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?


9 thoughts on “The Psychology Behind Mindfulness

  1. amichaud

    I found this article to be fascinating! I recently completed a mindfulness course and I found that there really are many helpful benefits. Its hard to believe that breathing and focusing, something that seems so simple could have such a positive effect on the mind and body. It is definitely something that everyone should try especially around finals week when we tend lose focus. After just a few practices I was noticing a major difference. With the research in your article linking meditation to improvements in brain functioning, I’m wondering what other benefits mindfulness holds that haven’t yet been discovered. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Alyssa

    Wow, this is a truly amazing topic. This just adds onto the arguments that the mind and the body are truly connected. By effectively controlling certain bodily functions, it can result in some astounding results, such as the increase in performance of the anterior cingulate cortex and the increase in prefrontal cortex usage as you had mentioned previously.

    With practice, I feel as though mindfulness can become a great tool to help improve people’s mental processes as well as their overall health. This was really well researched and in the future I will definitely try out the breathing techniques from the video you linked to and look more into mindfulness!

    1. jfreud Post author

      I definitely agree! Mindfulness seems to very beneficial to our health, in many ways. It definitely testifies to the mind-body connection. It is great to hear feedback from someone who has taken a course on mindfulness, as I have limited experience with it. Your comments make me want to explore it further!

  3. elisepoffenberger

    This is really interesting! A couple of weeks ago my biology professor had someone talk to our class about mindfulness and meditation. Of course, then, we didn’t learn as much about the cognitive portion of it. This brings it all together and makes it easier to relate too. I find it interesting that something this easy to do can be so beneficial to our health. I don’t practice mindfulness (other than the other week in my biology class) but I can definitely see how it can and is useful.

  4. Meghan Turney

    Wow this is really great. I use to have a lot of trouble sleeping I would try listening to soft music, doing Sudoku puzzles, changing sleeping positions but I wish I knew about mindfulness. I feel like this would really help if you are stressed out and need to clear your mind but just focus on what is going on in your head not the content. You did a great job on this! I loved the different ways you could use mindfulness as well.

  5. mdeasis

    I am incredibly fascinated by this topic! I am in love with the practice of yoga and mindfulness is most definitely a huge part of it. I love how you were not only able to be very informative about this topic but you also provided some tips on how people could practice being more mindful. Love this article, well done!

  6. Shawn

    Great post! I had been practicing meditation for a while before I had moved to Virginia a few years ago and after the first time I had tried it, the sensation was amazingly calming. I did it every night after. This just makes me think that I should start back up again .

  7. aestero

    I absolutely enjoyed this read! Like many, I too can keep myself up for hours just thinking about things when I should be sleeping. It’s really interesting reading research done on things such as being up all night because of your thoughts. I think practicing mindfulness is such a great and helpful technique. It makes me wonder how long would it take for one who practices mindfulness to get used to it and for it to work 100%. It also makes me wonder what other benefits it has, as well as some drawbacks. I wonder if having us focus on something else, such as breathing, could lead to other thoughts, ones we weren’t thinking of until our breathing techniques. For example, I wonder if focusing on breathing, could maybe trigger someone of a memory of when their relative stopped breathing due to a heart attack?

  8. Remy Marcus

    I love learning about mindfulness and think it is something that I would like to try. Mindfulness techniques are really important for focusing your thoughts. This makes me think it would be wonderful for people who suffer with depression or anxiety. It is a way to channel your thoughts into a category that is separate from the negative thoughts that are associated with anxiety and depression.

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