What is Mindfulness and How Does it Work?

“Mindfulness” seems to be everywhere these days – in research articles, on the news, in marketing of products and services. While many people seem to agree that the practice of mindfulness is a good thing, it can be confusing to figure out what exactly mindfulness is and how it can help you.

I like the definition of mindfulness offered by Steven Hayes*: “Mindfulness is the defused, nonattached, accepting, nonjudgmental, deliberate awareness of experiential events as they happen in the moment.” The idea is that you can learn to observe yourself experiencing both internal (body sensations, thoughts, etc) and external (visual, tactile, auditory, etc) stimuli. These observations are defused and nonattached, meaning that you observe the experience instead of being consumed by the experience. Mindfulness is nonjudgmental but this understands that some of your observed experiences may be judgemental thoughts. The practice is deliberate because you are working through specific techniques with effort.

Given this definition, mindfulness is not easy! It is not simply relaxation, it is not a form of distraction. It requires a type of thought which is foreign to most of us who exist in a very verbal and causative world. There is no good explanation of how mindfulness “works” in the brain; however, much evidence indicates that mindfulness does work. It can help us detach from and observe painful experiences, both in the present and in the past. It can help ground us in the moment and enrich our experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant. It can help relieve depression, anxiety, and psychological suffering.

If you are interested in mindfulness training, there are many options. Consider physical practices like yoga, Eastern approaches like medication, or self-help approaches like the book below or even psychotherapy.

*Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life; The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Steven Hayes, PhD with Spencer Smith, 2005, p 98.

Please feel free to reach out to us if you have additional questions and if you want to learn more about how mindfulness can work with psychiatry. This is a technique that all of our doctors use with our patients.

Dr. Jennie Byrne,
Cognitive Psychiatry of Chapel Hill

Dr. Jennie Byrne, M.D., PhD.

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