Vet Wellness Briefs: The Science of Mindfulness

Mindfulness can—to some degree—help improve your sense of well-being, especially in stressful careers like equine veterinary medicine.
Close up of yoga mindfulness outdoor at sunset.
By focusing on the present through mindfulness, people are less likely to worry about the future or regret the past. Getty Images

Mindfulness is defined by Oxford Dictionary as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” 

Multiple studies have identified mindfulness as being a key element in stress reduction and overall happiness. There is skepticism in the scientific community, however. This is due to a 2014 meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine that examined 47 randomized controlled trials of mindfulness meditation programs. Those trials included a total of 3,515 participants. The trials found that meditation programs resulted only in small to moderate reductions in anxiety and depression.1

Mindfulness has roots in Buddhism. However, most religions include some type of prayer or quiet contemplation that helps shift the person from their usual preoccupations toward a period of introspection and a larger perspective on life. The cadence of spoken prayers and repetition of traditional and familiar services can create a sense of calm and belonging.

Scientific Evidence Behind Mindfulness

The science shows that mindfulness can improve well-being by increasing the capacity to savor pleasurable events in life as they occur. They can also help a person become fully engaged in activities. Finally, they create a greater resilience to the effects of adverse events. 

By focusing on the present through mindfulness, people are less likely to worry about the future or regret the past. They are also frequently less concerned about success and self-esteem, and they are able to form deeper connections with others. Mindfulness practices can improve physical and mental health. Stress, heart disease, hypertension, chronic pain, insomnia and GI issues have all been shown to be positively affected by mindfulness. Mindfulness can also positively impact people with depression, substance abuse issues, eating disorders, anxiety and OCD.

According to an article in Scientific American, MRI brain imaging techniques have shown that mindfulness can profoundly and permanently change the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other. After two months of mindfulness practice, the brain’s amygdala—the region associated with fear and emotion—appears to shrink. Also, the pre-frontal cortex—which is responsible for higher-order brain functions such as awareness, concentration, and decision-making—becomes thicker. The functional connections between the amygdala and the frontal cortex are strengthened, and those with the rest of the brain are weakened. 

The study concluded, “The present findings represent an important contribution to the current understanding of how mindfulness may reduce stress responding and thus improve physical and psychological health. Smaller grey matter volumes in subcortical structures, particularly the amygdala and caudate, may be the morphological correlates of the previously reported link between trait mindfulness and reduced stress reactivity and improved well-being.” 

Reference

1. Taren, A.A.; Creswell, J.D.; Gianaros, .PJ. (2013) Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64574. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0064574. Accessed 12/3/2022

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