If there is one common desire to all human beings on Earth, that desire is happiness: being able to recognise and enjoy the beauty in the experiences of life, in our relationships and in ourselves. At the same time, happiness seems to be the most unachievable goal out of all of human ambitions. We can sometimes be drawn to some particular goal that we feel will eclipse every other desire, as if it really represented the essence of happiness itself, but more often than not, once we’ve obtained whatever we were looking for, we’re instantly thrown back to where we started. As long as humanity has started questioning their presence on the planet and the meaning of their lives, happiness has fascinated theologists and philosophers. In today’s society, the concept of happiness is often sold in the form of a new product, a new course, a new haircut that will solve all of our problems and lead us to the best version of ourselves. But again, once we’ve worked hard for that, that satisfaction quickly dissolves within a couple of minutes.
Buddhism is the religion and philosophy that has had the most to say about the pursuit of happiness, for thousands of years. According to Buddhism, happiness does not come from an outer source, like products, courses, relationships or hairstyles: it has to be found within ourselves. Only this way can happiness be achieved and treasured, without being challenged by new desires and external situations. While Buddhism does not stand as a psychological outlook on life, it has recently been looked up by researchers that have been increasingly interested in the way people who follow some of the traditional Buddhist practices, are able to react more positively to life challenges. Mindfulness is the most famous practice of Buddhism, and it has been transformed over the years to take on a more Western perspective. Whatever approach one could take on Mindfulness, the result is scientifically proven to lead practitioners to a more positive approach to life, a decrease in stress levels and a more balanced hormonal reaction…all good prompts for a happy life. That’s the reason psychologists, among other scientists, have increasingly been fascinated with Mindfulness and its innumerable benefits on the mind. Let’s see how Mindfulness can be integrated into psychological health, and what areas of mental health can be positively affected by this beautiful practice.
The main pull towards anxiety stems from the fact that our minds are constantly running without a direction, wandering on all sorts of thoughts, and this, in turn, often leads to imagining the worst possible scenarios. And once we’re in the loop, it can feel as if there wasn’t any way to escape and break the pattern. Researchers call this brain mode “monkey mode”, in colloquial terms. What if we could give our mind more control and stop it from wandering to the worst assumptions? Mindfulness works just perfectly for anxiety, because it involves a present-moment awareness that is non-judgemental: it recognises the thoughts, but doesn’t dwell in their presence. Rather, through Mindfulness we can learn to let go, and to see a situation for what it is. A good Mindfulness meditation technique I use when I feel my mind wandering around in potentially dangerous loops, is based on redirecting my attention to the present moment, and specifically to what is around me. I start by listing in my head five things I can see around the room I’m in. Then, I proceed with the other senses: five things I can taste; five things I can smell; five things I can hear; five things I can touch. This little exercise can help break the loop of anxiety, taking the mind away from the fear by enhancing creative thought, calming the heartrate down. It has been proven that Mindfulness meditation, when practiced with some dedication, can have incredible effects on the amygdala, the insula and the dorsomedial cortex, the brain centres responsible for emotion regulation, fear, and reactions to anxiety.
Depression is often linked to the rumination of thoughts or situations from the past, which prevent the mind from focusing on the present and on happier thoughts. Through the practice of Mindfulness, many psychologists have found a decrease in the appearance and the endurance of depressive symptoms: patients who engaged in a mindfulness-based programme for just a couple of weeks, were more able to focus on the present moment and to recognise small things that could bring them joy or pleasure, which they weren’t able to identify before. Mindfulness allows patients to be aware of their thoughts and emotions and recognise the triggers to the depressive symptoms. Once this is done, patients can be more prone to say “no” to others or to things that they feel will not be helpful to them, and this can in turn boost confidence and self-esteem. It all starts with finding inner peace, which can be extremely hard when you’re dealing with depression. A beautiful meditation which is entirely focused on finding inner peace is called “The Eye of the Hurricane”, and has been proven to be a powerful tool for relaxation and decreased rumination. In order to begin, sit comfortably but tall, and take three slow, deep breaths. Start developing awareness of your body and your breath moving in and out of your nostrils. Then, imagine a hurricane: picture the wind whirling, the circular loops of the air, the frightening power it produces. In the middle of the hurricane, there is an eye, a centre. This centre is always calm, no matter what the air around it does. In the middle of the hurricane, there is no destruction, there is no wind, there’s nothing but peace. Recognise that you are the eye of the hurricane. The turbulent air represents the circumstances that have led you to where you are, the sorrow, the worries. But you are the centre, a source of peace that stays still, even when the wind outside is frightening. Recognise that no matter what will happen, you will always be the eye of the hurricane, and the turbulences won’t touch you. Try this meditation often, maybe even every day for a couple of weeks, for best results.
While Buddhist Mindfulness meditation is more based on a loving-kindness approach, Western Mindfulness is more focused on the individual, on self-awareness and regulation of one’s own personal thoughts. However, even Western Mindfulness has a surprisingly positive effect on empathy and compassion. As strange as it may sound, it all starts with relaxation. Yes, even compassion! Stress has a powerful effect on our brain: it dominates the mind by releasing hormones that enact a fight-or-flight response, taking over the entire body. Many studies have shown that stress causes people to switch on survival mode, leading them to focus only on what is going on in their life as a reaction. By reducing stress in favour of relaxation, Mindfulness allows the mind more space for positive emotions, including those of others. Moreover, the increased self-awareness that comes with meditation is more likely to be expanded to a universal dimension, thus enhancing empathy, compassion and the understanding of others’ feelings. Compassion is key to our wellbeing, as it motivates us to maintain healthy relationships; and these, in turn, help us develop a more positive sense of ourselves, while bringing satisfaction and joy. It’s like a cycle, a loop of joy and happiness, that only requires your relaxation. Sounds amazing, right?
Another incredible benefit of Mindfulness, which reinforces the benefits it has on depressive symptoms, anxiety and stress in general, is the positive effect it has on resilience. Resilience is an individual’s ability to adapt to life changes and to rise from challenging situations. Just like a tree may bend because of the wind, without breaking, a resilient individual isn’t beaten up by the turbulences of life, but resists to challenges and always finds its way back up. Psychologists have discovered a link between the resilience trait of personality and a specific area of our brain, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), which is located in the deep centre of our brain. The ACC is related to learning from past experiences and to self-regulation. Studies have shown that after only 3 hours of Mindfulness practice, the ACC presents a higher activity, thus making the individual more resilient. Resilience is conceptualised as a personality trait, which can however be enhanced with some techniques, such as meditation. When enhanced, it is can transform the individual’s outlook on life, increasing general wellbeing and the ability to react to difficulties.
You may have noticed so far, that all the points we’ve been covering seem to be interconnected. That’s because the deep relaxing effect that Mindfulness meditation has on the mind and body can be translated into so many different benefits for multiple aspects of psychological mental health. This can also be applied to the realm of addiction. Addiction is a serious issue that should always be faced with the help of a professional, and it can ruin a person’s existence by taking away all the joy and spontaneousness from life. The recovery process has many stages, which can be extremely hard on the person who’s suffering from addiction. However, different research has shown that Mindfulness can help decrease the usage of substances by individuals suffering from addiction. This is due to the enhancement of bodily and mental awareness, which comes from the meditation itself. Through Mindfulness, individuals affected by addiction can learn to recognise the cravings, instead of being their victim. Increased awareness allows to see the cravings as thoughts: not as something rooted within themselves, but as fleeting entities that can go as easy as they came to the mind. With some consistent practice, Mindfulness allows for a reprogramming of the addiction, helping in the rehabilitation and the achievement of freedom. Instead of being caught in a vicious loop of confusion, Mindfulness has been shown to be of great help in reducing the occurrence of psychiatric issues that can have a long-term effect on individuals who are trying to recover.
The number of research studies analysing the effects of Mindfulness meditation on psychological health is in constant growth, and more and more practitioners testify on the benefits that this ancient practice has on the mind and body. While there is still so much to be discovered, Mindfulness nonetheless represents an incredibly powerful tool that can enhance wellbeing and even act as a supplement for therapy of many kinds. And not only it is completely harmless, but it is also free! All you need to do is sit down and…relax!
Paola Perillo is a young old soul based in Rome, passionate about relaxation, meditation, reiki and crystals. She graduated in Psychology and Sociology at the University of Brighton, where she learned to integrate the psychological and the spiritual. Paola is currently working as content writer for different sources.