Mindfulness is the act of ‘being present‘, or ‘actively noticing our current experience and what we’re feeling‘.
To give you my personal example, I take the opportunity to be mindful during my morning coffee; using it as a moment to pause and experience fully the rich aromas and flavours of my coffee, and enjoying the warmth of it as it brings in the new day. These moments help me still my body and mind, and experience joy in an otherwise uninspiring daily routine.
Alternatively, mindfulness can be an intentional period of introspection, where we sit silently with our thoughts, to actively be curious with those thoughts and our connected feelings. This can be a powerful practice that helps us explore our deep subconscious, while also training ourselves to sit with our thoughts without allowing them to consume or change how we feel.
We have a more in depth article here on what mindfulness is – if you don’t have a full understanding of mindfulness, we recommend reading it first, and then returning here to understand its benefits when practised regularly.
The benefits of mindfulness are many; its ability to change the make-up of our brain and have incredible and lasting effects on the overall physiology of the body is inspiring. We’ve put together some of the benefits we think are most important to LGBTQ+ people and can support common mental health conditions in the LGBTQ+ community.
Mindfulness has a hugely calming effect on the central nervous system. In our fast-paced lives, many of us live in ‘fight or flight’ mode, with our sympathetic nervous system on overdrive. This leaves us feeling stressed, anxious and exhausted.
Mindfulness helps to reverse this by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for ‘rest and digest’. This has a profound effect on our stress levels, and helps us to feel more relaxed and at ease.
A study published in the National Library of Medicine found that participants who practised mindfulness had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who didn’t.
Turakitwanakan W, Mekseepralard C, Busarakumtragul P. Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. J Med Assoc Thai. 2013 Jan;96 Suppl 1:S90-5. PMID: 23724462.
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry or fear that can be mild or severe. It is one of the most common mental health conditions in the world, with around 1 in 20 people experiencing anxiety disorders each year.
Anxiety disorders are characterised by feelings of excessive fear or worry, which can be so overwhelming that they stop us from carrying out everyday activities.
One of the main causes of anxiety is our central nervous system going into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is our body’s natural response to stress, and it occurs when we’re in a dangerous situation or when we’re feeling overwhelmed.
The ‘fight or flight’ response causes a number of physical and emotional symptoms, such as racing heart, sweating, feeling lightheaded or dizzy, nausea, shaking and difficulty breathing.
Because mindfulness helps to calm the central nervous system it prevents us entering ‘fight or flight’ mode which significantly reduces spikes in anxiety When we’re mindful, we’re more aware of our thoughts and emotions, and we learn not to react to them as strongly. This also helps reduce the amount of anxiety we experience in daily life.
Poor sleep is one of the most common symptoms of stress and anxiety. When we’re anxious, our minds are constantly racing and we find it difficult to switch off at night. This can lead to restless sleep, or even insomnia.
Mindfulness has been shown to be an effective way of improving sleep quality. A study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that mindfulness meditation was as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in treating insomnia.
The benefits of mindfulness for sleep are thought to be due to its ability to calm the mind and reduce stress levels. When we’re stressed, our minds are constantly active and we find it difficult to relax and fall asleep. Mindfulness helps to reverse this, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and calming the mind.
One of the most well-known benefits of mindfulness is its ability to reduce stress levels. This is because mindfulness helps to calm the mind and reverse that ‘fight or flight’ response that we often experience when we’re stressed.
Remaining in ‘fight or flight’ over long periods of time, such as at work or in an unhealthy home environment, is what creates chronic stress and has disastrous effects on our physical health. Mindfulness helps lessen that stress, or soften the experience we may not be able to remove ourselves from, so that we limit the long-term effects of chronic stress.
A study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that participants who practised mindfulness had lower levels of cortisol, which is a hormone that is released when we’re stressed.
Not only does mindfulness reduce our stress levels, it also improves our ability to deal with stressful situations in the moment and prevents our central nervous system entering ‘fight or flight’ mode. We refer to this as our ‘resilience to stress’.
Being able to remain calm in stressful situations has countless benefits, but most notably it helps us retain mental clarity during a stressful situation, which helps us determine the most appropriate way to resolve the situation. This allows us to take on more challenging situations or environments, and learn to tackle obstacles with a calm and confident approach.
Moreover, when people are mindful, they learn not to associate the thoughts and feelings that arise with their capability to take on new challenges – for instance, we begin to see that self-doubt is a thought that arises in moments of stress, but self-doubt itself does not mean we’re any less capable of resolving the situation. This helps us recognise that our feelings in a stressful situation are something that can be worked through, not something that limits our capacity to overcome the obstacle. This reinforces our confidence to take on new challenges, and further improves our ‘resilience to stress’.
Mindfulness has been shown to have a number of benefits for cognitive function, including improved focus, concentration and memory.
One study published in the journal NeuroImage found that mindfulness meditation led to increased grey matter density in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
The benefits of mindfulness for cognitive function are thought to be due to its ability to reduce stress, being when our minds are constantly active and we find it difficult to concentrate. Mindfulness helps to reverse this, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and calming the mind.
Mindfulness has been shown to have a number of benefits for cognitive function, including improved focus, concentration and memory. Because mindfulness increases grey matter density in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
Additionally, grey matter is responsible for decision making and self-control, supporting mental clarity during times of heightened stress.
Increased grey matter is also responsible for sensory perception, control, movement and memory. It therefore has improvements to our mental and physical function at a cellular level.
“To summarize, analyses of gray matter concentration changes in the regions of interest analysis supported significant increases in the left hippocampus in the MBSR group, confirming that structural changes in this region are detectable within eight weeks following the participation in this mindfulness training program.”
Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30;191(1):36-43. doi: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006. Epub 2010 Nov 10. PMID: 21071182; PMCID: PMC3004979.
Mindfulness has also been shown to be beneficial in reducing rumination and negative thinking.
Rumination is when we get stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts, where we can’t seem to stop thinking about the same thing over and over again. This can be very damaging to our mental health, and can lead to depression and anxiety.
We created an article recently on the various types of negative thinking and why it can be so damaging to our mental health.
Mindfulness helps to break this cycle by teaching us how to accept our thoughts without judgement, and without allowing them to consume us. It teaches us how to be more present in the moment, and how to observe our thoughts without getting attached to them. This helps us to become more aware of our thoughts, and eventually leads to us becoming less reactive to them.
Mindfulness is also known to improve our relationships with other human beings; family, friends, and partners, as well as those we do not know.
When our internal self is calm, we remain kinder and more accepting of others.
Rather poignantly, people who regularly practice mindfulness have reported improved relations with their partners, including a deeper sense of connectedness with them physically and emotionally.
It aids communication between people, improves empathy and understanding for one another, and thus brings partners together during challenging times. These improvements to communication and understanding benefit all other areas of a relationship, meaning partners feel a holistic improvement in their relationships.
Because mindfulness has overall and holistic benefits to the mental and physiological self, its ability to reduce stress, calm the body and mind, and keep the central nervous system controlled results in an overall improved immune system within the body.
Stress floods the body with stress hormones, including cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. This can result in high blood pressure and heart rate, disturbed sleep, high blood sugar, headaches, and inflammation across the body.
By improving our ability to remain calm in stressful situations, and improve our stress resilience, we limit the physical effects that stress has on our body and mind, thus improving our immune system and overall health.
These are just some of the inspiring benefits mindfulness can have on our lives.
Because we experience stress differently, it’s important to try different mindfulness practices that work for you, and how to incorporate these into your lives sustainably. If you’re forcing yourself to practice mindfulness for 15 minutes per day, it’s going to quickly feel like a chore than you won’t continue with.
Mindfulness should be a practice we enjoy, in a calm setting that fits naturally into our lives. I always recommend being mindful for a few minutes at breakfast, three times a week, than forcing yourself to be mindful because ‘you know you need to do it’.
As our connectedness with mindfulness grows, we find ourselves instinctively taking more moments to be mindful, and slowly incorporating the practice naturally around our lives.
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