by Meghan Searl, PhD, ABPP-CN
Clinical Neuropsychologist at the Center for Brain Mind Medicine at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Instructor in Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
Have you heard the term mindfulness recently and wondered-what does that word mean, exactly? And for that matter, what does it have to do with health tracking? There are many wearable devices and apps to track just about anything, from activity to sleep and everything in between. Tracking is an easy way to start using digital health tools, but not everyone is successful in their effort to achieve goals and even incorporate healthy behaviors into their lives. There are countless reasons why people drop off from tracking and even more research is being done to make tracking effective. Could our success at tracking and overall health, hinge on our ability to be mindful?
Over the past 10 to 20 years, the concept of mindfulness has gradually made its way into mainstream pop culture, in part because of new research supporting its positive effects. In this post, we’ll talk a bit about what mindfulness can mean when it comes to health and well-being, and mention a few technologies that aim to support development of mindfulness skills.
What is mindfulness?
People use the term mindfulness to mean different things. Here are a few specific ways that we will be using mindfulness this post:
- Mindfulness (an umbrella term): Mindfulness can refer to a number of different but related ideas, including the practice of meditation, moment-to-moment awareness of experience and paying attention without judgment.
- Mindfulness of experience: This means being aware of your bodily sensations, emotions and mental reactions (thoughts) from moment-to-moment in a way that involves friendly curiosity, warmth and openness. We are not being mindful when we are “running on automatic pilot” — going through the motions without really experiencing what we are doing, or when we’re aware of our experience but are subtlely harsh or critical.
- Mindfulness meditation: This refers to a type of meditation that anchors our attention on something, such as a visual object, our breathing or sounds, and returns our focus there when we notice our attention has drifted. This mind-wandering is not ‘bad’ and does not make someone a failed meditator. Rather, it’s the nature of the human mind to have thoughts and reactions that pull our focus away. With regular practice, it becomes easier to keep the attention focused on an anchor, and can result in a number of emerging qualities, including being more resilient in the face of stress.
What does mindfulness have to do with my health?
Numerous studies have demonstrated specific benefits of developing a mindful attitude toward experience (the second definition above) and the regular practice of mindfulness meditation. While most of us don’t aspire to be expert meditators (accruing 10,000 or more hours of sitting meditation practice), the research on these individuals help us understand how meditation practice can affect health and well-being.
According to the 2010 Mindfulness Report by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, mindfulness has significant benefits for health and well-being and quality of life in general:
People who are more mindful are less likely to experience depression and anxiety, are less neurotic, more extroverted and report greater well-being and life satisfaction. They have greater awareness, understanding and acceptance of their emotions and recover from bad moods more quickly, and have higher, more stable self-esteem.
Relationships and Communication
More mindful people enjoy more satisfying relationships, are better at communicating, less troubled by relationship conflict, and are less likely to think negatively about their partner as a result of conflict. Mindfulness is associated with emotional intelligence, good social skills, the ability to cooperate and see other perspectives. They are also less likely to react defensively or aggressively when they feel threatened.
Productivity and Achievement
Practicing meditation has repeatedly been shown to improve people’s attention, job performance, productivity and satisfaction, and enable better relationships with colleagues and reduce work-related stress. People who are mindful feel more in control of their behavior and are more able to override or change internal thoughts and feelings and resist acting on impulse.
Meditation practices have been shown to increase blood flow, reduce blood pressure and protect people at risk of developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease; it also reduces addictive behavior, including the use of illegal drugs, prescribed medication, alcohol and caffeine. People who meditate have fewer hospital visits related to heart disease, cancer and infectious diseases, and visit their doctor half as often as people who don’t meditate.
How can technology help me develop mindfulness skills?
At first glance, it may seem that technology and mindfulness are completely unrelated, and possibly incompatible. While there is some truth to this, there are ways that technology can support us in developing mindfulness skills:
- Headspace: This is a multi-media app that offers short, audio-guided instruction in mindfulness meditation. The developers call Headspace, “meditation for the modern world” that can be accessed “without the sitting cross-legged or incense-burning” and “at a time that suits you.”
- HeartMath: Since 1991, the HeartMath Institute has researched and developed reliable, scientifically based tools to help people bridge the connection between their hearts and minds, and deepen their connection with the hearts of others. HeartMath has researched the sometimes dramatic positive changes that occur when techniques are applied that increase coherence in rhythmic patterns of heart rate variability. Using the Inner Balance Sensor and App you enter how you are feeling in the moment and then run a session focusing on a positive moment. Research has shown that focusing on positive emotions like appreciation can greatly reduce the effects of stress and deliver you to a more calm peaceful state.
- Insight Timer: This smartphone app provides meditation timers, reminders, guided meditation practices by well-known teachers and opportunities to connect with other app users. Insight Timer provides practical tools for those who want to commit to a daily or regular meditation practice and offers guidance for those who want more instruction as well as a sense of community.
This is an app that runs on iOS and Android.
- Muse: This device trains your brain to rest in a relaxed, focused state for longer periods of time. The headband includes small sensors that pick up specific brain wave signals that indicate when your brain is in a relaxed, focused state and when it becomes distracted by thinking. It then plays increasingly loud sounds (ocean waves) every time your mind begins to drift away from a state of focused relaxation.
- Mindfulness Meditation? Am I Doing It Right? By Dr. Susie Wolbe, Huffington Post.
- The Mental Health Foundation. (2010). The Mindfulness Report.