By Dr. Mercola
Practicing “mindfulness” means that you’re actively paying attention to the moment you’re in right now.
Rather than letting your mind wander, when you’re mindful you’re living in the moment and letting distracting thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications.
Though it sounds simple, it often takes a concerted effort to remain in a mindful state, especially if it’s new to you. But doing so can offer some very significant benefits to both your mental and physical health.
Improve Your Focus and Cognitive Function With Mindfulness
Imagine how different your day may be if you were 100-percent focused on each task at hand. Your work or school performance may improve, as might your ability to achieve virtually any goal you set out to accomplish, from teaching your child to read, to cooking dinner or finishing a workout at the gym.
Mindfulness can help you to achieve this state of undistracted focus, according to new research. In a study of college students who took either a mindfulness class or a nutrition class for two weeks, those who took the mindfulness class improved reading-comprehension test scores and working-memory capacity, as well as experienced fewer distracting thoughts.1
“Improvements in performance following mindfulness training were mediated by reduced mind wandering among participants who were prone to distraction at pretesting. Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences.”
How do You Learn Mindfulness?
Mindfulness training courses are now widely available, although you don’t necessarily need a formal class to be “mindful.” For instance, you can add mindfulness to your workouts by paying attention to the sensations you are experiencing while you exercise. Likewise, the mindfulness class used in the above-mentioned study used techniques such as the following to become more mindful:2
- Paying focused attention to an aspect of sensory experience, such as the sound of your own breathing
- Distinguishing between simple thoughts and those that are elaborated with emotion (such as “I have a test tomorrow” versus “What if I fail my test tomorrow and flunk my entire class?”)
- Reframing emotional thoughts as simply “mental projections” so your mind can rest
In many ways, mindfulness is similar to transcendental meditation, the idea of which is to reach a place of “restful” or “concentrated” alertness, which enables you to let negative thoughts and distractions pass by you without upsetting your calm and balance.
This type of meditation is easy to try at home: simply sit quietly, perhaps with some soothing music, breathe rhythmically and focus on something such as your breathing, a flower, an image, a candle, a mantra or even just being there, fully aware, in the moment.
Some people prefer to close their eyes to block out visual stimulation. If you find that your mind starts to wander, direct it back to your focus point and continue from there.
Mindfulness Leads to Physical Benefits, Too
Being mindful is not solely a matter of improving your focus or boosting your mental cognition. Mindfulness training has also been found to reduce levels of stress-induced inflammation, which could benefit people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma.
This makes sense, since chronic stress heightens the inflammatory response, and mindfulness is likely to help you relieve feelings of stress and anxiety. In one eight-week study, people who received mindfulness training had smaller inflammatory responses than those who received a control intervention, which focused on healthy activities to reduce psychological stress but without particular instruction on mindfulness.3 The study revealed:
“… behavioral interventions designed to reduce emotional reactivity [mindfulness] may be of therapeutic benefit in chronic inflammatory conditions. Moreover, mindfulness practice, in particular, may be more efficacious in symptom relief than the well-being promoting activities cultivated in the HEP [control] program.”
Meditation is Another Tool to Improve Your Focus and Mental Function
As mentioned, practicing meditation is in many ways similar to practicing mindfulness, and the benefits, including improved focus, are similar as well. There is research showing meditation may lower blood pressure with just three months of practice,4 while at the same time decreasing psychological distress and increasing coping ability among young adults. Positive changes, including improvements in critical thinking, mental resilience, and behavioral coping, have also been noted after meditation.
Research from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) also supports the notion that meditation acts as a form of “mental exercise” that can help regulate your attention and emotions, while improving well-being. Even better, these changes may be permanent …It’s been found previously that meditation prompts changes in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with processing emotion. Newer research suggests these beneficial brain changes persist even after the meditation session is over, resulting in enduring changes in mental function.5
Everyday Tips for Improving Your Focus
Mindfulness and meditation are among the best methods to boost your ability to focus. Ideally, start out your day with a mindfulness “exercise,” such as focusing on your breathing for five minutes before you get out of bed. This can help you to stay better focused for the rest of the day.
As the day goes on, try to minimize multi-tasking, as this is the opposite of mindfulness. If you find yourself trying to complete five tasks at once, stop yourself and focus your attention back to the task at hand. If emotionally distracting thoughts enter your head, remind yourself that these are only “projections,” not reality, and allow them to pass by without stressing you out.
You can then end your day with a 10- or 15-minute meditation session to help stop your mind from wandering and relax into a restful sleep.