What is mindfulness?
In recent years, the West has begun taking advantage of the power of mindfulness and meditation, and as a result its popularity has been growing fast.
Basically, mindfulness is a type of meditation whose roots can be traced back to both Hinduism and Buddhism and is thought to have been practiced for thousands of years.
Like most meditation, it focuses on an awareness of the body and the mind. However, while some forms of meditation aim to completely empty the mind of all thoughts, mindfulness focuses on allowing thoughts to come and go freely without “judging” any of them.
This way, you’re allowed to acknowledge thoughts and feelings that may not have been previously obvious, such as a fear or anxiety about something you didn’t realize was bothering you. You’re also better able to identify aches and pains in the body, such as a sore neck stemming from poor posture.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
As with any form of meditation, the main aim is to calm and relax the mind. By allowing thoughts to come and go as they appear, your mind can offload the things it’s been focusing on or blocking out all day. It can also train you to cope better with the constant bombardment of thoughts that fly around our mind throughout the day.
Life is full of stressful situations: commuting in busy traffic, looking after demanding children, meeting deadlines or trying to make ends meet financially. Even when you aren’t thinking about them, your mind can be subconsciously mulling them over, causing low-level stress that you might not notice other than that slight uneasy feeling in the back of your mind.
Mindfulness helps you identify what’s causing this uneasy feeling so that you can deal with it and then get on with your day stress free!
Reducing and managing stress is so important because stress has a huge impact on the body and is even thought to contribute to serious problems like cardiovascular disease.
Essentially, when the mind is stressed, it sends the body into a primal “fight or flight” response mode. This heightens muscle function, heart rate and cooling mechanisms—that’s why we sweat when we get stressed—while also shutting down long-term survival systems, like the immune, digestive and reproductive systems. As a one off, this doesn’t have long-term effects, but continual stimulation of the stress response can start to impact your overall health, contributing to heart disease, mental health issues and even the development of an enlarged prostate.
Improves focus and cognitive function
A reduction in stress often has the knock-on effect of improving focus and concentration levels.
A mind clear of clutter and stressful thoughts is much more able to focus on the really important tasks. Big meeting coming up at work? Preparing for an interview? Trying to get a project finished? Practicing mindfulness when you feel your mind getting a bit jumbled up and stressed out is a great way to clear the mind and find some focus.
In the long term, mindfulness can give you an increased ability to focus on one thought at a time, making it more difficult for the mind to become cluttered and distracted.
Not only that, but meditation is also thought to increase blood flow to the brain, not just while you meditate but over the long term too. A 2010 study found that “CBF [cerebral blood flow] in long-term meditators was significantly higher compared to non-meditators in the prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex, thalamus, putamen, caudate, and midbrain.”
All this extra blood flow should help you feel more switched on, focused and clear.
Preserves brain function with age
Meditation could help to keep your brain healthy as you age. While increased blood flow can help keep problems like brain-fog or poor memory at bay, meditation can also change the structure of your brain over time. A 2015 UCLA study found that age-related grey matter decline was significantly slowed in those who meditate compared to a control group who did not.2
While it may not prevent age-related cognitive or neurological problems indefinitely, it seems that it can slow them down.
Anxiety can be a huge problem for men, even if we don’t like to talk about it! Sometimes this can stem from stressors like work, young children or financial problems, and sometimes it’s just a problem that seems to develop out of nowhere.
Regardless of the cause, mindfulness can be a huge help. Not only can each session help clear and calm the mind, allowing you to identify what’s really causing you anxiety, but over time the exercise can help strengthen the mind against stress and anxiety, making it easier to cope with your usual triggers.
One study found that an eight-week course of mindfulness showed “statistically significant improvements in subjective and objective symptoms of anxiety.” Furthermore, these effects were still seen three years later in patients who were still practicing mindfulness.3
Do men and women react differently to meditation?
Some have argued that mindfulness only works on women and has no effect on men. A 2017 study found that while mindfulness helped women overcome low mood, it actually worsened mood in men.
However, I think that there are a few things to consider here. We know that, generally speaking, men are more likely to bury emotional problems or channel them into unhealthy behaviours. This could mean that something like meditation could bring up these thoughts and feelings again, which could affect mood negatively, at least at first. However, over time it’s likely that mindfulness could help retrain the mind to deal with these issues better.
There is also some evidence supporting the idea that, because in primitive times men generally fulfilled a protective role, even today they find it harder to switch off. However, as with any new skill, after some time and regular practice, mindfulness usually become easier and therefore more effective.
The only way to really see if it works for you is to give it a go!
How to start mindfulness
So how do you get started?
Some apps, such as Headspace, provide guided mindfulness practice. Each session is only 10 minutes long so it’s really easy to squeeze into your day—before work, on the commute, during your lunch break or in the evening. It’s also full of useful videos and information to help you practice.
Some apps have a free version or trial period, so you can try before you buy. And if you do like them, you can pay to upgrade to the fully functional or more customizable versions if you like.
1) Cerebral blood flow differences between long-term meditators and non-meditators. Consciousness and Cognition, 19(4), December 2010.
2) Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy. Frontiers in Psychology, January 21, 2015.
3) Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders. General Hospital Psychiatry, May 1995.
4) Women Benefit More Than Men in Response to College-based Meditation Training, Frontiers in Psychology, April 20, 2017.