A GIF representing mindfulness -- an illustration of a yoga pose inside a head

What Is Mindfulness, and How Can It Help You? A Psychologist Explains

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Weill Cornell Medicine’s Dr. Suza Scalora on the value of being in the moment—even while cooking or washing your hands

By Beth Saulnier

“Mindfulness” is a term that’s often thrown around in wellness culture—but what does it really mean, and what are its benefits? Cornellians asked Dr. Suza Scalora to demystify the concept. A licensed clinical psychologist, Scalora is an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Weill Cornell Medicine, as well as an assistant attending psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Could you define mindfulness?

It’s a mental state characterized by being fully present in the moment, without judgment. It’s consciously cultivating awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, and bringing acceptance and kindness to whatever arises within yourself.

Why is that important?

Research has shown that mindfulness can decrease stress levels and improve wellbeing and resilience to life’s challenges. With mindfulness, we’re practicing having a nonreactive mind, instead of a reactive, stressed-out way of being that is physically and mentally exhausting and unhealthy.

Dr. Suza Scalora

That means we’re not ruminating about the past—thinking about things we could or should have done—and obsessing or catastrophizing about the future.

What’s the opposite of mindfulness? Is it, essentially, zoning out?

That’s a good way to put it; we’re so often on autopilot. Have you ever driven to work or walked somewhere, and you don’t even remember how you got there? That’s autopilot, because we’re immersed in our thoughts.

And the problem is that when our thoughts are in a more negative tone, it can lead to stress, and may eventually lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. Mindfulness is about training your attention, so you notice when your mind has wandered to thoughts that aren’t helpful.

How do we achieve mindfulness? Is meditation key?

It’s one of the most popular techniques to cultivate mindfulness. You can also engage in mindful activities such as yoga, gardening, cooking, or painting; these can all be ways of being engaged in the present moment.

Also, practicing gratitude—taking a couple of moments each day to think about what or whom you’re grateful for—helps cultivate a positive mindset, which is part of mindfulness.

Mindfulness can decrease stress levels and improve wellbeing and resilience to life’s challenges.

The discipline of meditation can seem intimidating. Is there a simple way to describe how to do it?

Find a quiet place to sit comfortably. Focus on your breath; it’s your anchor to the present. Observe what it feels like to breathe in, and the space between the in and out breaths. Pay attention to your senses; notice what you can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Your five senses can also connect you to the moment.

It’s so easy to get distracted. Are some people just bad at meditating?

Often, people think they should naturally be good at mindfulness, but it’s a skill that takes practice. Look at it like you’re building your mindfulness muscle. If you want to get in shape, you don’t go to the gym and immediately lift 50 pounds; you start small and gradually increase the weight over time. That’s how we look at mindfulness.

Start with setting a timer on your phone, closing your eyes, and doing three minutes of conscious breathing—listening, and observing the things you’re hearing. The next day, maybe four minutes.

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Be gentle with yourself. It’s easy to say you don’t have time, but you can put it into your daily routine, like brushing your teeth in the morning. Also, guided meditations can be really helpful; there are a lot on YouTube, and many mindfulness apps.

You mentioned that everyday activities like cooking could be mindful. But what if one is, say, making dinner while listening to NPR?

That’s a great point; we all have so much to do, so we multitask. But from a mindfulness standpoint, we want to stop multitasking. Let’s say you’re cooking; it can be an opportunity to notice the colors, textures, and aromas of the food. You’re engaging your senses—being present with the food you’re making, rather than being distracted.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with listening to NPR while you’re cooking, and we want to be flexible. But if you want to insert mindfulness into your life—and a lot of us have busy lives and stressful jobs—it can be hard to sit down and formally meditate. But you can engage in mindfulness during daily activities. Even washing your hands—feeling the temperature of the water, soaping up, noticing the bubbles, rinsing—can be mindful.

From a mindfulness standpoint, we want to stop multitasking.

You’ve mentioned the importance of being in the present. But what about the value of anticipation? For example, the inability to plan things was one reason the pandemic was so hard on people’s psyches.

We want to walk a middle path. It’s not that we shouldn’t make plans or have things to look forward to. The issue is that when our thoughts go into catastrophizing and worrying, and we become preoccupied with these thoughts, we can start ruminating and experience stress—and many physical and mental issues can follow from that.

Are there books on the subject you’d recommend?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed mindfulness-based stress reduction, has written a number of books, including Wherever You Go, There You Are and Full Catastrophe Living. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is excellent. There’s also Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, and 10% Happier by Dan Harris.

Are there physical benefits to mindfulness?

Mindfulness is an adjunct to many therapies, including cognitive behavioral therapy. It can help treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties, support your immune system, and more.

Lastly, beyond stress reduction, what are the psychological benefits?

Research has found that mindfulness can help reduce anxiety, depression, and burnout, and it can aid treatment of substance abuse, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It has been shown to increase positive emotions and enhance self-awareness. Training our attention to be focused in the present moment helps with productivity and our performance at work or school.

And, very importantly, mindfulness can help us notice how our mind talks to us—our “inner critic.” Are we encouraging and validating ourselves? Are we being kind, or do we have a punitive voice that says nothing’s ever good enough? Becoming aware of our inner voice can give us tremendous power in navigating the world.

Top: Illustration by Caitlin Cook / Cornell University. Photo provided.

Published April 5, 2023

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