Why mindfulness is effective – what does the research show?

A report on Mindfulness from Insight International.

What’s the science behind Mindfulness?

A huge body of research that originally stemmed (in the western world at least) from the ground breaking work of Kabit-Zinn, has convincingly proven the effectiveness of using mindfulness training in a variety of contexts to promote well-being and positivity and in reducing the effects of stress.

We now know the, “What?” and the question we are left with is, “Why is mindfulness so effective?” There is speculation in the scientific community about the answer to this which has led to a high volume of recently conducted controlled studies and published research papers.

confusing perception as reality

It has been said that, it is not an event that causes us distress but how we think about the event. Often we become so fused with our thoughts that instead of regarding them as merely thoughts about something, we confuse them with reality.

Our beliefs, our perceptions and our thoughts, all have parts to play in the ways in which we experience the world. The ways in which we process our experiences tend to reinforce our beliefs.  The term a “Theory of Cognitive Appraisal” was proposed by Lazarus and Folkman (1984) which described the human mechanism of judging a level of threat, the individual’s perceived capability of overcoming or coping with the stressor and the perceived benefits of acting on, or avoiding, the threat.  It also described both ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ appraisal of events, those being primary appraisal: an assessment of how significant an event is for a person, including whether it is a threat or opportunity and secondary appraisal of the individual’s perceived ability to cope or take advantage of the situation.

“Mindful individuals orient to on-going events and experiences in a receptive, attentive manner. This experiential mode of processing suggests implications for the perception of and response to stress situations. Using laboratory-based, longitudinal, and daily diary designs, four studies examined the role of mindfulness on appraisals of and coping with stress experiences in college students, and the consequences of such stress processing for well-being. Across the four studies (n’s = 65 141), results demonstrated that mindful individuals made more benign stress appraisals, reported less frequent use of avoidant coping strategies, and in two studies, reported higher use of approach coping. In turn, more adaptive stress responses and coping partially or fully mediated the relation between mindfulness and well-being. Implications for the role of mindfulness in stress and well-being are discussed.”  2008 Elsevier Inc.

 

Mindfulness is a state of being that includes non-judgmental attention, in the present moment but why should this state alter our appraisal of events?

“First, the quality of attention that is brought to bear on situations is thought to impact cognitive appraisals (Gross & Thompson, 2007). While much of the literature on attentional deployment in the appraisal process has focused on forms that can have mixed or negative appraisal consequences, such as distraction and rumination, theory and research suggest that mindful attention may promote more adaptive appraisals. Several authors have argued (e.g., Baer, 2003; Brown et al., 2007) that mindfulness involves a greater willingness or ability to receptively process internal and external stimuli as they occur. This stands in contrast to a conceptually driven mode of processing in which occurrences are habitually filtered through conditioned evaluations, memories, beliefs, and other forms of cognitive manipulation (see Brown et al., 2007).

If mindfulness fosters more objectively informed responding, then situations can potentially be viewed in more benign or neutral terms. Recent research supports this claim, showing that mindfulness promotes desensitization and a reduction in emotional reactivity to potentially threatening stimuli (Arch & Craske, 2006; Broderick, 2005; Creswell, Way, Eisenberger, & Lieberman, 2007). Thus, mindfulness may promote cognitive change by a ‘turning down’ or attenuation of negative appraisals of events. “

Given the key role of cognitive appraisal in emotional and other mental health outcomes, we suggest that one process through which mindfulness may enhance mental health and well-being is a reduced tendency to perceive situations in stress-inducing ways…

… the present studies were designed to test whether the well-being benefits of mindfulness could be explained, in part, by adaptive stress processing. Using a variety of methodological designs and measures, all four studies found that more mindful individuals were likely to view demanding situations as less stressful or threatening. More mindful individuals were also more likely to cope with stress in adaptive ways, particularly using less avoidant-oriented strategies in stress situations. Pg383

From A multi-method examination of the effects of mindfulness on stress attribution, coping, and emotional well-being Netta Weinstein a,*, Kirk W. Brown b , Richard M. Ryan a a Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, 336 Meliora Hall, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627, United States bDepartment of Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University, 806 West Franklin St., Richmond, Virginia, 23284, United States  N. Weinstein et al. / Journal of Research in Personality 43 (2009) 374–385
 http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/Weinstein-MindfulnessStress.pdf   downloaded on 06/02/2016

 

How can a person disengage from a previously established stress appraisal, to construct a more adaptive appraisal of their circumstances?”

Mindfulness thought process

“…mindfulness, a mode in which thoughts are experienced as transient, psychological events rather than reflections of absolute reality. The practice of mindfulness may facilitate and strengthen this capacity for positive reappraisal.” read more from source article…

In another study, …participants were asked to employ different types of focus, corresponding to the two distinct modes of self-reference.  “Narrative focus” calls for elaborating mental constructs within our minds, weaving a story as it were, which reduces attention toward sensory objects available in our immediate experience.  By contrast, “experiential focus” calls for inhibiting our elaboration on any given mental event in favour of broadly attending to the objects in our experience and “canvassing thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without selecting any one sensory object.”

Narrative focus is associated with ruminative thoughts about the self, while experiential focus avoids rumination. It disengages the brain networks that lead to self-referential story-making. The researchers noted that while a focus that centres on experience in the present includes a strong component of paying attention to bodily sensations, meditation practice is associated with developing moment-to -moment awareness of all available stimuli. Accordingly, when participants were instructed to maintain an experiential focus, they were encouraged to include “internal thoughts, emotions, and external sensory events, in addition to bodily sensations.”

A mindfulness-trained group was compared with a novice group in how they performed in working with these different types of focus and, by extension, the two different neural regions: the one associated with story-making about the self and the other associated with immediate experience. The Toronto group demonstrated that meditation practice enhances the ability to disconnect these two regions and engage more robustly in experiential focus.

As a result, the likelihood that an experience of present-moment awareness will automatically be followed by a self-centred monologue is reduced. Even the habitual patterns that are deeply built into the body can be changed with practice. Norman Farb, the lead investigator of the study, says that the work demonstrates how “mindfulness changes the very ground of the way that we experience the self.” From: “The brain on mindfulness”  http://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~britta/SUN_July11_Baime.pdf

Garland, Farb, Goldin and Fredrickson describe the mechanism by which mindfulness improves our mental states.  It allows us to: “…decenter from stress appraisals into a metacognitive state of awareness, resulting in broadened attention to novel information that accommodates a reappraisal of life circumstances. This reappraisal is then enriched when one savors positive features of the socioenvironmental context, subsequently motivating values-driven behavior and ultimately engendering eudaimonic meaning in life.” (p377) Garland, E, L., Farb, N. A. S., Goldin, P., and Fredrickson, B. L. (2015). Mindfulness broadens awareness and builds eudaimonic meaning: A process model of mindful emotion regulation. Pychological Enquiry.  Volume 26, Issue 4.

In summary: Recent research has indicated that the following aspects of mindfulness contribute to it’s effectiveness in promoting wellbeing, positivity and stress reduction:

  • It allows individuals to “…orient to ongoing events and experiences in a receptive, attentive manner”.
  • It promotes “…objectively informed responding so that situations can potentially be viewed in more benign or neutral terms”.
  • It allows a “…greater willingness or ability to receptively process internal and external stimuli as they occur. (This stands in contrast to a conceptually driven mode of processing in which occurrences are habitually filtered through conditioned evaluations, memories, beliefs, and other forms of cognitive manipulation.)”
  • It leads to an individual “…using less avoidant-oriented strategies in stress situations”.
    “Thoughts are experienced as transient, psychological events rather than reflections of absolute reality.”
  • It “…disengages the brain networks that lead to self-referential story-making”.
  • “Self-centred monologue is reduced and experiential awareness increased.”
  • It enables the individual to “…decentre from stress appraisals into a metacognitive state of awareness, resulting in broadened attention to novel information that accommodates a reappraisal of life circumstances. This reappraisal is then enriched when one savours positive features of the socioenvironmental context, subsequently motivating values-driven behaviour and ultimately engendering eudaimonic meaning in life.”
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