Mindfulness and Anxiety: What Research Tells Us

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There has been a growing surge in interest in the practice of mindfulness. It seems every week there is a new study touting its benefits as a useful tool in quelling anxiety, chronic stress, feelings of distress or depression, and a myriad of other health benefits. But what is mindfulness, exactly? How does it work, and how effective is it? Let’s take a closer look at the practice, and what research has to say.


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How mindfulness got its start

Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist tradition, but starting in the 1970s, it began to be used as a way of enhancing mental well-being. Research on mindfulness has focused on how the brain responds to the practice, how it benefits mental and physical health, and how it enhances and fosters feelings of well-being. The practice is often sighted for its benefits in reducing anxiety because it focuses on being aware of our emotions non-judgemntally and how our body is feeling.


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What is mindfulness?

One of the best known definitions of mindfulness comes from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). In his bestselling book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Kabat-Zinn writes, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” In short, mindfulness is about focusing your attention on where you’re at right now.


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When stress and anxiety become overwhelming

Mindfulness has showed promising results in treating anxiety and other mood problems. Stress and anxiety are a normal part of life, but sometimes these feelings can become excessive, to the point that they overwhelm us. This can include continually thinking about negative experiences or worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet.


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Why mindfulness can help anxiety

Anxiety, fear, and worry can become chronic when a person obsessively ruminates over past hurts or concerns, or becomes preoccupied with angst or uncertainty over future events or worries. This is why mindfulness, with its emphasis on being in the present, has been studied as a useful tool in reducing these negative feelings. When your mind begins to fret or wander, mindfulness practice brings your awareness back to your present space, without judging those thoughts or feelings.


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Studies show mindfulness can help regulate emotions

Many mindfulness studies demonstrate that the practice can help increase levels of life satisfaction and feelings of well-being, reduce negative feelings, and help regulate emotions. Studies show that learning mindfulness skills increases our ability to accept our feelings without trying to avoid or push aside difficult or negative emotions.


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Accepting your thoughts and feelings

The premise behind mindfulness is that being in the moment can counter the effects of stressors that cause us frustration, anxiety, pain, and worry. One study found that acceptance-based mindfulness, where you observe, acknowledge, and accept thoughts that come to you was most effective in halting intrusive negative thoughts. But the study also noted the practice didn’t reduce overall feelings of anxiety, despite lowering the frequency of negative thoughts.


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Halting repetitive negative thoughts and worries

The same study also found that mindfulness helped people regulate thoughts connected to anxiety and worry before they became repetitive and debilitating. Researchers found meditation that focused attention on breath was slightly less effective than acceptance-based mindfulness. The least effective method was progressive muscle relaxation exercise, where participants were asked to relax group of muscles that may be carrying tension.


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An example of the guided meditation used in the study

Here is a sample of acceptance-based meditation, a script that was published in the study: “Direct your attention inwardly… notice thoughts, emotions, physical sensations… any other kinds of experiences as they show up in the field of your awareness… sitting and noticing what's here, right now, for you…. Each time you become aware of a private experience, such as a thought, or a feeling… turning your attention towards it, acknowledging it, maybe labeling it and as best you can, letting things be as they are … making space for your experiences.”


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Informal vs. formal: different ways to practice mindfulness

Mindfulness can be practiced informally or formally. We can have “everyday mindfulness,” where we train our minds to pay attention to how we’re feeling as we move through our day. Focus on being present while parenting a child, feel the water while washing dishes, take a moment to listen to the sounds of nature. Formal practice means setting aside time to intentionally practice mindfulness, such as through guided meditations with a therapist or even listening to guided audio downloads.


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How long and how often do you need to practice?

Both formal and informal mindfulness have benefits, but research has shown that those who formally practice mindfulness saw more benefits. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be long mediations. According to one study, those who practiced for 10 minutes a day for 16 weeks saw significant improvements in neural functioning associated with enhanced focused attention.


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How effective is mindfulness, really?

Even with all the research done on mindfulness, it’s difficult to put an exact measurement on how helpful and effective it is. One study that reviewed the data from 124 published trials showed that 88 percent of these had positive results, 9 percent had mixed conclusions, and 3 percent showed negative results. This may point to a hidden bias, where researchers selectively use data to support positive findings or negative research simply isn’t published.


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More research is needed to fully understand mindfulness

The same research also noted that these studies have all found that mindfulness is associated with positive mental health, and that mindfulness training can be beneficial and helpful to many people. But researchers are still trying to understand how mindfulness can be best be used to promote positive effects.