Mindfulness. Everyone seems to be talking about it. It's all over social media, it's widely promoted in spiritual centers, and health headlines tout its benefits morning, noon, and night. But what is it really?
Mindfulness is the act of being fully present in the moment. When you are mindful, you let go of thoughts and distractions that pull your attention to the future or back to the past and instead you focus on the sensory experience that exists in the present. It's a lifestyle practice that allows you to fully enjoy the moment in front of you.
Not only does mindfulness help you savor life's big and small moments, but it's also a tool that can help you improve your overall mental health. A recent study suggests that using mindfulness for anxiety can be just as effective treatment as using some leading prescription medications. If these findings are confirmed with future research, it means that you can essentially think yourself into a healthier, happier mindset. Explore the techniques below to start a mindfulness practice of your own and boost your overall well-being.
Is Mindfulness an Effective Treatment for Anxiety?
According to a 2022 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), not only can mindfulness reduce anxiety symptoms, but it can be as effective as the first-line medication used to treat the mental health condition. The JAMA study included 276 adults with anxiety disorders; however, only 208 participants fully completed the trial. In addition, 75% of participants were female and 59% were white, which presents some potential limitations of the study.
During the randomized clinical trial, participants were split into two groups. One group received the anti-depressant escitalopram, at a dose ranging from 10mg to 20 mg based on a medical provider's assessment. The other group received treatment with mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Both treatments lasted for a period of eight weeks, and assessments were conducted at the start of the study, at the end of week eight, and two follow-up measures were collected at weeks 12 and 24.
Results showed that MBSR had comparable effectiveness to the prescription medication and that the benefits were on par. This presents a wide variety of hopeful possibilities for the future, where mental health care can be achieved through mindfulness techniques, and not solely reliant on medication.
Pros and Cons of Anxiety Medication
The type of medication used in the JAMA study is called escitalopram. It is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that works by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain. This effect can help people to maintain mental balance. Typically, it's used to treat depression in adults and children ages 12 and up, as well as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
- Escitalopram has been found to be an effective treatment for both depression and anxiety.
- It is believed to be the most accepted anti-depressant according to the Journal of Neuropsychiatric Diseases and Treatment.
- The medication shows stable efficacy when treating more severe forms of mental health conditions.
- Escitalopram is described as a well-tolerated medication, however, 8% of participants dropped out of the medication group in JAMA's study, while none dropped out of the MBSR group.
- If a person suddenly stops taking the drug, they may experience symptoms of withdrawal, such as mood changes, headaches, sweating, shaking, and more.
- It takes about one to four weeks or longer for the full effects of the drug to be established.
- Medication costs money. A 30-day supply of 10mg of escitalopram costs about $19.
- There are a wide variety of side effects from using the medication, such as nausea, diarrhea, sexual problems for both males and females, drowsiness, and more.
Medication is a great treatment option for some individuals. They can help people stabilize their mood in a relatively short period of time and give them the boost they need to seek additional forms of support through mental health providers and support groups. However, it may not be the best option for all individuals depending on their unique needs and the recommendations of their healthcare provider.
Pros and Cons of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
MBSR is a specific program that was invented in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. It was originally created to aid in stress management but has since been used in the field of psychology to treat a wide variety of mental health conditions.
The practice brings together elements of mindfulness and meditation and also includes a variety of stretches and postures that have been linked to positive health outcomes.
- It has also been used to treat physical health conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, immune disorders, and even pain.
- MBSR has been found to be an effective treatment for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
- MBSR techniques have also been found to reduce stress levels, decrease rumination, and boost a person's working memory, relationship satisfaction, and ability to focus.
- An MBSR program consists of a total of 26 hours. It typically runs 2.5 hours per week for a period of 8 weeks, which may be a larger chunk of time than some people can commit to.
- MBSR programs can also be costly and range from $300 to over $600.
- Most programs also have a full one-day retreat that requires attendance in order to complete the course, which may also be difficult for people to fit into their schedules.
Mindfulness-based practices can be a great treatment option for many individuals, especially for those who prefer not to take medication. Once you learn the techniques, you can begin to practice them on your own and turn to them at any point when anxiety arises. The habits take time to develop, so be gentle with yourself as you navigate the learning curve. Over time, your skills will grow.
Mindfulness Techniques for Anxiety
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing your attention without judgment. It often involves bringing your awareness to your breath, the sensations in your body, a mantra, or the sounds around you. Mindfulness has been included in several clinical practices, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation to help people avoid negative thoughts and stay focussed on the present.
You don't have to join an MBSR program in order to experience the benefits of mindfulness. There are a variety of techniques that you can practice at home that are often taught during these types of programming.
When you practice these strategies on your own, you can go at your own pace and create your own learning schedule. In addition, you might find that some of the techniques don't work for you, and that's okay. You can move on to the next one until you have built up a set of tools you know you can turn to whenever you start to feel anxious or overwhelmed. If you're ready to begin an MBSR practice of your own, explore the strategies below.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), meditation is "extended contemplation or reflection in order to achieve focused attention." However, don't let that definition or any preconceived notions of the practice fool you. Meditation is simply focusing on one thing at a time.
The practice itself can help you silence your thoughts, experience them without judgment, and check in with the sensations in your body. The APA notes that meditation can relieve stress, boost feelings of relaxation, and reduce blood pressure.
If you're interested in meditation, don't be afraid to start small. Try to dedicate 5 minutes a day to the practice, and then gradually work your way up. Research shows that consistency is not only key to developing a new habit, but that continued meditation practice has been linked to higher rates of benefits.
Different types of mindful meditations you can explore include:
- Body scans - This type of meditation requires you to bring your attention to the sensations in the body. Start at one end, such as the top of the head, and then slowly work your way down. Notice how the different parts of your body feel, and try not to judge them in any way.
- Loving-kindness - This meditation allows you to practice self-love, and also send it to others around you. To begin, think of someone you care about and notice the sensations in your body. Then, imagine that you are sending those warm, loving sensations to this person. Next, try and send them to a person you don't know as well, and then on to a person you may have a difficult connection with. Finally, send those feelings to yourself.
- Seated meditation - This practice is done sitting on the floor or resting in a chair with your back straight and your feet planted on the ground. From this position, you can choose whichever type of meditation practice you wish, such as focusing on your breath or expressing loving-kindness.
- Walking meditation - This type of meditation allows for movement. A person can experience a mindful walk by silently exploring the outdoors, noting the sights, sounds, and sensations they encounter, and not labeling or judging them in any way. Forest bathing is a form of walking meditation that has become popular.
The practice of controlled breathing involves bringing your attention to your breath. It helps trigger the body's natural relaxation response and releases tension from muscles.
Odds are that you already use this practice without even knowing that you do. Have you ever taken a deep breath when you felt stressed or overwhelmed? That's controlled breathing.
The next time you start to feel anxious or frustrated, try one of the mindful breathing exercises below:
- One deep breath in - Take a long, deep breath in through the nose, and then a long, deep exhale out through the mouth. You can repeat this as many times as you need.
- Box breaths - This breathing practice involves a bit of counting to help you focus on your breath. Breathe in to the count of four. Then, hold your breath for the count of four. Exhale to the count of four. Hold your breath for a count of four. Repeat this breathing pattern for at least five breaths.
- Lion's breath - This technique is similar to taking one deep breath. However, there's a fun twist on the out-breath to help you fully exhale (and maybe even add some play to your day). Take a full, deep belly breath in. Then, stick your tongue out like a lion panting and take a strong exhale until all of the air has been released. Repeat this practice as needed.
Have you ever been so hungry, tired, or distracted while you ate that you weren't actually able to enjoy your meal? We've all been there, and that's where mindful eating can lend a helping hand.
When you practice mindful eating, you simply focus your attention on whatever food you're going to enjoy. It can be a snack, what you brought for lunch, or your favorite dessert. When you shift your attention to what you're consuming, you just might find that you're able to eat more intentionally and enjoy your food more thoroughly.
Some ways to practice mindful eating include:
- Avoid distractions like scrolling on your phone or watching TV when you are eating.
- Eat slowly and savor each bite.
- Focus on the flavor, texture, color, and scent of whatever you're eating.
- Think about where your food came from and express gratitude for all of those involved in the production of the food.
Yoga, tai chi, and qi-gong are known as mindful movement. Each practice involves intentional body postures and stretches that are often connected to the breath.
Research from the National Center for Contemporary and Integrative Health shows that yoga has been linked to improved rates of physical and mental well-being, lower stress levels, reduced pain in the body, and improved sleep. In addition, it has also been found to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Yoga can be an intimidating practice to begin. Especially if you don't necessarily consider yourself to be flexible. However, you don't have to be able to do a backbend or even touch your toes to start practicing yoga. Meet yourself wherever you're at and explore a routine that works for you.
Some ways to get your yoga practice started are:
- Challenge yourself to try two yoga poses a day for five minutes each.
- Follow a yoga flow online from the comfort of your own home.
- Sign up for a free trial at a yoga studio in your area.
- Try some simple stretches when you wake up in the morning.
You can bring mindfulness into any aspect of your daily life. All you have to do is dedicate your attention to one thing at a time, whether that be your morning coffee, the book you're reading, or the hugs you give to loved ones. When you act with intention, it can make a positive difference for your mental health and overall well-being.