Riding the Mindful Wave
Over the past ten years there has been heightened public interest in the notion of well-being and mindfulness.
Although well-being refers to physical and mental aspects of health, it is strongly believed human metacognition is the basis upon which all other forms of well-being develop. Whenever there is a cultural buzz around a notion it is important to understand what it is. To understand mental well-being, one can look through the lens of psychology and research to gain an empirical understanding of how it is cultivated and the promising relationship it creates with behaviour, health and performance.
Firstly, what is mental well-being?
The sense of feeling good about ourselves and being able to function well individually or in relationships
The ability to deal with the ups and downs of life, such as coping with challenges and making the most of opportunities
The feeling of connection to our community and surroundings
Having control and freedom over our lives
Having a sense of purpose and feeling valued
One cannot speak about well-being without acknowledging the critical role mindfulness plays. Mindfulness is the cognitive pillar, or arguably, the foundational layer of mental well-being. It is unclear when popular thought and culture started to gain interest in the mentalization of well-being - perhaps in response to the life-style driven health problems evidenced through increasing levels of obesity, depression and cardiovascular deterioration. However there is a clear spike in scientific research on Eastern practices such as mediation. The interest in the 1950’s evolved into ‘evidence-based’ validation of meditation, bringing awareness and focus on internal processes. In 2004, Cognitive Psychology birthed the ‘Third Wave’ of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) (Hayes, 2004). Instead of just focusing on how thoughts affect feelings and behaviour, the focus of the Third Wave has been to bring awareness to the feelings and distance between thoughts, pushing the understanding that we are not our thoughts. The application of such therapies have shown to reduce anxiety by 58%, depression by 57%, and stress by 40%. In as little as four weeks, the benefits of reduced stress, depression and anxiety (Be Mindful, 2018) are felt by most people who start practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness holds the ability to pay attention to the present moment, to recognize and accurately label emotions and to develop self-awareness (Greeson, 2008).
Building awareness is through meditation, breathing exercises and yoga .ie., anything that slows down reactivity, creates a sense of flow and of groundedness. As “fluffy” as the notion ‘being aware of the present moment’ may seem, it is actually is a skill cultivated through practicing sustained attention. The cultivation allows for greater internal attention, awareness and acceptance associated with lower levels of psychological distress, anxiety, depression, anger and worry (Baer, 2003; Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007; Greeson & Brantley, in press; Grossman et al., 2004). Not only does this create external behavioural differences it also manifests as a neurological difference.
People who are more mindful are able to better regulate and control their emotions. Brain imaging research has found that more mindful people appear to have a greater ability to control emotional reactions in the middle part of the brain where emotion is processed. Instead of a full engagement in the amygdala (our fight or flight centre) and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, there is activity in the prefrontal cortex; the attention, concentration and emotion regulation hub of the brain (Creswell, Eisenberger, & Lieberman, 2008; Creswell et al., 2007). Even more interestingly, greater grey matter is found in the structural MRI’s of people who meditate than those who do not (Hölzel et al., 2007a) in regions such as the right anterior insula related in interoceptive awareness, how we understand the state of our body.
As the relationship between wellness and controlled studies develops, clearer understanding of the definition of mental well-being. What is already clear is the neurological, behavioural and self-assessed differences borne from creating a mindfulness practice. The differences go beyond the current hype and addresses the demands of daily living in today's’ over-stimulated society.
Baer RA. Mindfulness training as clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. 2003;10:125–143.
Brown KW, Ryan RM, Creswell JD. Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry. 2007;18:211–237.
Creswell JD, Eisenberger N, Lieberman M. Neural correlates of mindfulness during social exclusion.Los Angeles: University of California; 2008. Unpublished manuscript.
Creswell JD, May BM, Eisenberger NI, Lieberman MD. Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2007;69:560–565.
Department of Health (2010). Healthy Lives, Healthy People: Our strategy for public health in England. London: The Stationery Office. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/216096/dh_127424.pdf
Grossman P, Niemann L, Schmidt S, Walach H. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 2004;57:35–43.
Greeson, J.M. (2008). Mindfulness research update: 2008. Complementary Health Practice Review 14, 10–8.
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Hölzel BK, Ott U, Gard T, Hempel H, Weygandt M, Morgen K, Vaitl D. Investigation of mindfulness meditation practitioners with voxel-based morphometry. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2007a;3:55–61.
Mental Health Foundation. “BeMindful.co.uk – Evidence and Research Information.” Available at: http://bemindful.co.uk/evidence-research/