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Why Mindfulness Works

May 13, 2015

mindfulness works

Mindfulness is the art of living in the moment. Often people from all walks of life wonder if all the talk about mindfulness is just hype. AMA’s global study on “Mindfulness in the Workplace: Practices and Implications” by Miles Overholt and Mark Vickers, finds that mindfulness is strongly endorsed by those who practice some form of it. But why does it work?

In simple terms, mindfulness works because living in the moment enables a person to:

  • Worry less about events in the past
  • Appreciate what is happening in the immediate present
  • Therefore, listen better, focus more clearly, and not be triggered by past emotional history

The more technical, scientific explanation is that mindfulness enables the front of the brain, called the pre-frontal cortex, the seat of rational thought, to react rather than the emotional fear-inducing fight-flight area, called the amygdala.

Here is a more thorough explanation of some of the research that supports mindfulness:

The science of mindfulness is extensive, rigorous, and impressive. Dr. Kabat-Zinn conducted research on the impact of his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses and found that participants in his courses showed clear gains in their ability to focus and in reduced stress. His work spurred myriad studies from 1980-2000. Many of these studies supported Kabat-Zinn’s findings, showing significant relationships between mindfulness training and reduced stress, increased focus, and psychological well-being. For example, in 2000, mindfulness was linked to a reduction in relapses after patients were treated for depression.

Perhaps even more impressive has been the work of the last ten years in which functional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans are used to scan the brain to see if participants in MBSR treatments experienced differences in brain functioning. In a 2014 study published in the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, participants in an MBSR program not only scored significantly higher in a psychological well-being assessment, but experienced growing amounts of gray matter (that is, brain tissue) in certain areas of the brain. In another study, which involved 32,827 global respondents, a University of Liverpool research team concluded that people who ruminated less had fewer mental health issues. One frequently prescribed way to manage rumination is by practicing mindfulness.

Research results have consistently shown that mindfulness and meditation are powerful change agents for reducing negativity and anxiety while improving relationships, parenting, and work performance. In short, mindfulness can strengthen the front part of our brain–the pre-frontal cortex–to decreases the strength of the fear-inducing fight-flight area, called the amygdala. In addition, mindfulness also strengthens the connection between the pre-frontal cortex and the attention and concentration areas of the brain.

This is not to say that mindfulness practices are a panacea for whatever ails people. Although most studies and media reports cite the benefits of mindfulness, there have also been anecdotal reports on negative psychological reactions to meditation, one of the most widely used mindfulness practices. Of course, nearly every human activity intended to benefit us (e.g., running marathons, taking medications, psychotherapy) has, at times, been reported to have negative outcomes. Like anything else, mindfulness practices should be used wisely.

Here are three techniques that may help you experience mindfulness:

  • Sit still, close your eyes, and breathe from your belly. Note the sound of your inhaling and exhaling, feel your lungs and belly expand and contract. Repeat for five minutes.
  • Go to a park or a rural area. Walk slowly, focus on your breathing. Note how the air tastes, how it smells, and its temperature. Do this for at least three minutes and write down the taste, the smell, and the temperature of the air you breathed.
  • Select one of your favorite foods and smell it. See if you can identify the many smells of that bite of food. Then slowly bite into it. Focus on the taste and see if you can distinguish the many tastes within the bite. Notice if the food tastes different in different parts of your mouth. Slowly chew and focus on how that changes the texture of your favorite food.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and how it impacts business? Check out these statistics from a recent report on mindfulness conducted by Miles Overholt and Mark Vickers:

mindfullness_engagementR4sn Print

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About The Author

Dr. Miles H. Overholt is the Principal of Riverton Management Consulting Group and a founding member of the Business Research Consortium. His work centers on leading individual, team and organizational transformation. His primary research focus is on identifying the drivers of organizational performance and developing better methods to manage organizational transitions. He also researches team behavior and performance. He has over 30 years of consulting and research expertise in strategy execution and organizational design, as well as in guiding change for organizations, teams, and individuals. His clients range from entrepreneurial start-ups to the Fortune 500. He is the author of Building Flexible Organizations: A People-Centered Approach and has written numerous articles on strategy execution, change processes and organizational alignment. Currently, Dr. Overholt is the Principal of Riverton Management Consulting Group. His undergraduate degree is from Lafayette College and he earned his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. Mark Vickers is a Principal at Vigoré Publications and a founding member of the Business Research Consortium. He has worked in the research field for most of his career. He was a research analyst and, later, managing editor at the Human Resource Institute at Eckerd College. He has also worked as a writer at Nielsen Media, a senior analyst at Bersin by Deloitte, and vice-president of research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity. He has authored, co-authored and edited hundreds of research reports and articles. He graduated with Honors from Eckerd College.

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