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The science of mindfulness: 5 ways it can benefit your brain

4 minute read

Need more than just the promise of a relaxing pick-me-up to be convinced about mindfulness? Vhi Health Coach Micheli Romão highlights some major science-based effects it can have on people’s mental make-up.

‘Mindfulness’ – you might have heard of it by now. It’s true that the term is everywhere these days. Claims around the huge positive impact it can have on people’s mindsets and indeed, lives, are never far behind. But what exactly do we know about how it affects your brain?  Scientific research is finding real evidence for the power that lies in being more aware of the present moment. So, let’s look at 5 key areas where mindfulness has been shown to positively “retrain” the brain.

Depression

While there’s still research to be done into what exactly is happening neurologically, we know that mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are effective for reducing depressive symptoms. They seem to reduce our vulnerability in two ways:

  1. By acting as a mental “buffer” against lingering on negative thoughts. The technical term for this behaviour is ‘trait rumination’ or ‘negativity bias’, and mindfulness can divert us away from it.
  2. By reducing ‘automatic emotional response’. This is how we react to different situations, controlled by a small region of the brain called the insula. Studies comparing mindful tasks with stressful ones have shown how the “non-reactivity” in mindfulness is key in protecting people against depression.

Pain

There’s strong evidence that emotion and pain share the same pathways in the brain. So, the same techniques used to regulate emotion can be used for pain. Part of mindfulness involves knowing that, even when we’re in pain, our resulting “suffering” is something we can control. A nice thought, but does it make a real difference for those going through it?

One study of a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme looked at 90 people suffering from physical pain. Their multiweek training was found to genuinely ease their pain in the moment, allowing them to get more active and take less pain-relieving drugs. Mindfulness also lifted their mood, improved negative body image and generally helped them have less anxiety and depression. Most benefits lasted up to 15 months afterwards. 

Stress & anxiety

A big one for most people curious about mindfulness. Luckily, there are in-depth findings around long-term meditators when it comes to coping with stress and anxiety. Mindfulness increases activity in the amygdala, which improves the way we regulate emotion. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and hippocampus show increased activity. What all that means is that mindfulness has the same calming effect on your brain chemistry that you also find in traditional meditation. For people with social anxiety, MBSR was seen to do a great job of reducing how emotionally reactive they are to stressors.

Immune response

This is the way your body defends itself against substances it sees as potentially harmful. Research shows that mindfulness can give it a better chance at responding. Breaking it down, proteins called antibodies work to protect you when your immune system faces a challenge. The science tells us that antibodies in mindfulness mediators can be even more effective at doing just that.

In observing the MBSR programme, it was found that there were even improvements in people living with HIV, which severely compromises your immune system. This could explain how treatment studies of psoriasis (a skin issue causing red, itchy patches) show an increase in healing when mindful reflection, in particular, is practiced. This involves thinking about your feelings, actions or experiences without judgement, but with openness and curiosity.

Focus & cognitive ability

‘Focused attention’ is a type of mindfulness that has the biggest impact in this area. What is it? Well, just as it sounds: making a conscious decision to bring your full attention on a particular stimuli. This can be external image or an internal sensation – your breath being a typical choice. Research suggests that using this technique, even briefly as a beginner, helps us to tap into and sharpen our cognitive powers, as the practice strengthens those pathways in the brain. Other findings point towards mindfulness being a useful strategy for protecting us against cognitive decline as we get older.

A more mindful future

So, that’s what the science tells us to date. But really, mindfulness should be all about feeling it for yourself. Not thinking ahead to potential benefits, just immersing yourself in the experience. Then let mindfulness work its – scientifically-backed! – magic. To get you closer to making mindfulness an effortless practice you can take into plenty of different parts of your day, there are plenty of apps that offer guided sessions for beginners.

Vhi members get €30 off meditation apps

As for further research into the science behind it all, there’s a wide variety of developments worth keeping an eye on. For instance, two University of Michigan students put forward evidence that engaging in regular mindfulness practices can help us dissolve our previously-held, subconscious prejudices around age, race and gender. So, it just might even help people smash preconceptions they didn’t know they had!

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.

Meet our Vhi Verified Expert

Micheli Romano

Micheli Romão

Vhi Health Coach

Psychologist & Psychotherapist