These days, mindfulness is practically a household word. It’s not just your mom sending you articles about mindful dishwashing, either. The Seattle Seahawks rely on mindfulness meditation for a competitive edge, and it’s so mainstream that companies from Google and Twitter to Aetna and Goldman Sachs have embraced mindfulness trainings for their employees.
It seems that mindfulness is catching on as a hack for increased productivity for good reason. Even just two weeks of mindfulness training might be enough to improve reading comprehension, working memory and the ability to focus, research suggests. And really, who wouldn’t want to think more clearly while getting more done?
But if all of this seems too good to be true, or the whole concept of mindfulness seems a little easier said than done, we’ve got your back.
What Is Mindfulness, Anyway?
Mindfulness, as we know it, has roots in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 to help chronically ill patients who weren’t responding to other treatments.
Since then, clinical trials have touted the health benefits of the secular practice, which teaches nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment through mindfulness meditation, yoga and body awareness techniques. Kabat-Zinn has described mindfulness meditation as “intensive training in Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism.”
The self-awareness that mindfulness encourages can help you differentiate between what’s really happening, and what is actually just a personal or societal narrative you’re participating in, says Danny Arguetty, M.A., mindfulness program manager at the University of Washington. For example, are Mondays really that terrible, or are you just allowing yourself to get caught up in that expectation?
“Mindfulness is an opportunity to step back and respond more and react less to life,” says Arguetty, who’s tasked with helping UW students, faculty and staff tune in and slow down. “It’s a practice of paying attention so we can pause and make more skillful and empowered decisions, instead of making decisions that are rash or reactive.”
The Body and Mind Benefits
To understand how mindfulness can positively affect your health, start by imagining the opposite: Do your days start with pouring your coffee into a to-go mug as you run out the door, barely having time to pull on your shoes as you rush to your bus stop or to sit in traffic on I-5? If you’re always hurrying from task to task and never stopping to savor the moment, your body will react to what it sees as mini emergencies, accordingly.
Cue the fight or flight response—your brain sends a stress signal to your adrenal glands, which secrete the stress hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol, explains Kristoffer Rhoads, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. These hormones help your body react in an emergency, but when they’re elevated long-term and in the absence of a real threat, like a car swerving into your lane, they can wreak havoc on your health.
Reacting to everyday stressors also strengthens the pathways in the limbic system and frontal cortex that are designed to detect threats, which makes us start to perceive these pretty harmless stimuli as things that are instead “potentially to probably dangerous,” he explains. “This continues to potentiate and activate this whole system.”