The best antidote to stress is mindfulness, existing in the here and now, not in the past or future, suggest meditation gurus. Researchers have now drawn a framework of four key components to help explain these positive effects.
Mindfulness, an essential part of Indian yoga traditions, has entered the mainstream as people try to find ways to combat stress and improve their quality of life. It is suggested the meditation can have benefits for health and performance, including improved immune function, reduced blood pressure, and enhanced cognitive function.
But how is it that a single practice can have such wide-ranging effects on well-being? The study draws on the existing scientific literature to build a framework on explanation, reports the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, citing a Harvard University statement.
Study author Britta Hölzel, of Justus Liebig University and Harvard Medical School, suggests the goal is to "unveil the conceptual and mechanistic complexity of mindfulness, providing the 'big picture' by arranging many findings like the pieces of a mosaic".
Hölzel and co-authors point out that what we think of as mindfulness is not actually a single skill, but rather a multi-faceted mental practice that encompasses several mechanisms.
They specifically identify four key components of mindfulness that may account for its effects: attention regulation, body awareness, emotion regulation, and sense of self.
Together, these components help us attend to and deal with the mental and physiological effects of stress in ways that are non-judgmental.
Although these components are theoretically distinct, they are closely intertwined. Improvement in attention regulation, for example, may directly facilitate our awareness of our physiological state. Body awareness, in turn, helps us to recognise the emotions we are experiencing.
Effective mindfulness meditation requires training and practice and it has distinct measurable effects on our subjective experiences, our behaviour, and our brain function.