How Mindfulness Works

Even though there have been many studies done about the benefits of mindfulness and its impact on the brain activity, there is no exact answer for why mindfulness has such beneficial effects on us. The research is still on-going and in the initial stages of development. However, here we present some of the possible theories of what happens to our brain when we regularly practice mindfulness.

One of the studies has shown that after the eight-week mindfulness practice course the participants’ amygdala, which is associated with stress, fear, and “fight or flight” responses, seems to decrease. So while amygdala seemed to shrink, the pre-frontal cortex, associated with higher brain functions like concentration, awareness, and decision-making, seemed to increase in size. Moreover, the “functional connectivity” between these regions also changed – the connection between amygdala and other brain areas got weaker, while the connection between the areas associated with concentration and attention got stronger, and the scale of these changes corresponds with the number of hours the meditation has been practices – the bigger the number, the greater the changes. “The picture we have is that mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” – Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh. This means that our primal responses to stress are actually supressed by more thoughtful ones. It is this disconnection of the rest of the brain from its “stress centres” that seems to be at the root of many physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing benefits of mindfulness practice. “I’m definitely not saying mindfulness can cure HIV or prevent heart disease. But we do see a reduction in biomarkers of stress and inflammation. Markers like C-reactive proteins, interleukin 6 and cortisol – all of which are associated with disease”, – Adrienne Taren.

Moreover, another study has shown that “two regions that are normally functionally connected, the anterior cingulate cortex (associated with the unpleasantness of pain) and parts of the prefrontal cortex, appear to become “uncoupled” in meditators”[1]. The meditators did not refrain from experiencing pain – they simply did not engage into thought processes associated with experiencing pain which might have been the reason behind many meditators reporting feeling significantly less pain than non-meditators. Interestingly, the meditators did not only feel less pain during the meditation – it seems that “[T]here is just a huge difference in their brains. There is no question expert meditators’ baseline states are different,” – Joshua Grant, a postdoc at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.

Another study on expert meditators (who have done more than 40,000 hours of meditaton practice) shows that “their resting brain looks similar, when scanned, to the way a normal person’s does when he or she is meditating. At this level of expertise, the pre-frontal cortex is no longer bigger than expected. In fact, its size and activity start to decrease again, says Taren. “It’s as if that way of thinking has becomes the default, it is automatic – it doesn’t require any concentration””[2], emphasising the powerful potential of meditation to dramatically and irrevocably change our physiology, thus changing our behaviour and even personality.

Mindfulness Can Be Measured

Today mindfulness can be measured. According to David S. Black, there are three domains of mindfulness:

  1. “A trait, a dispositional characteristic (a relatively long lasting trait),[47]a person’s tendency to more frequently enter into and more easily abide in mindful states;[48]
  2. A state, an outcome (a state of awareness resulting from mindfulness training),[47]being in a state of present-moment awareness;[48]
  3. A practice (mindfulness meditation practice itself).[note 5]

Seven mindfulness measures have been developed which are based on self-reporting of trait-like constructs:[53]

  • Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS)
  • Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory (FMI)
  • Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills (KIMS)
  • Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale (CAMS)
  • Mindfulness Questionnaire (MQ)
  • Revised Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale (CAMS-R)
  • Philadelphia Mindfulness Scale (PHLMS)”[1]


Benefits of Mindfulness

A more coherent and healthy sense of self and identity

 Potential in helping many physical and mental disorders

 Potential in bringing about favourable structural changes in the brain

Potential in delaying mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease

Reduction in stress

Potential in improving working memory, executive function, and concentration

Applications of Mindfulness
  • NHS: “Studies have found that mindfulness courses, where participants are taught simple meditations across a series of weeks, can also help to reduce stress and improve mood”.
  • Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent depression in people who have had three or more bouts of depression in the past.”
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction

“Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program[89] developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, which uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga to help people become more mindful.[25] In recent years, meditation has been the subject of controlled clinical research.[90] This suggests it may have beneficial effects, including stress reduction, relaxation, and improvements to quality of life, but that it does not help prevent or cure disease.[91] While MBSR has its roots in spiritual teachings, the program itself is secular[92] [1]  .

  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy

“Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a psychological therapy designed to aid in preventing the relapse of depression, specifically in individuals with Major depressive disorder (MDD).[93] It uses traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) methods and adds in newer psychological strategies such as mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. Cognitive methods can include educating the participant about depression.[94] Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, focus on becoming aware of all incoming thoughts and feelings and accepting them, but not attaching or reacting to them.[95]

Like CBT, MBCT functions on the theory that when individuals who have historically had depression become distressed, they return to automatic cognitive processes that can trigger a depressive episode.[96] The goal of MBCT is to interrupt these automatic processes and teach the participants to focus less on reacting to incoming stimuli, and instead accepting and observing them without judgment.[96] This mindfulness practice allows the participant to notice when automatic processes are occurring and to alter their reaction to be more of a reflection. Research supports the effects of MBCT in people who have been depressed three or more times and demonstrates reduced relapse rates by 50%.[97][2]

  • Acceptance and commitment therapy

“Acceptance and commitment therapy or (ACT) (typically pronounced as the word “act”) is a form of clinical behavior analysis (CBA)[98] used in psychotherapy. It is an empirically based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies mixed in different ways[99] with commitment and behavior-change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility. The approach was originally called comprehensive distancing.[100] It was developed in the late 1980s[101] by Steven C. HayesKelly G. Wilson, and Kirk Strosahl.[102][3]

  • Dialectical behavior therapy[edit]

“Mindfulness is a “core” exercise used in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a psychosocial treatment Marsha M. Linehan developed for treating people with borderline personality disorder. DBT is dialectic, explains Linehan,[103] in the sense of “the reconciliation of opposites in a continual process of synthesis.” As a practitioner of Buddhist meditation techniques, Linehan says:

This emphasis in DBT on a balance of acceptance and change owes much to my experiences in studying meditation and Eastern spirituality. The DBT tenets of observing, mindfulness, and avoidance of judgment are all derived from the study and practice of Zen meditations.[104][4]

  • Mode deactivation therapy

Mode deactivation therapy (MDT) is a treatment methodology that is derived from the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy and incorporates elements of Acceptance and commitment therapy, Dialectical behavior therapy, and mindfulness techniques.[105] Mindfulness techniques such as simple breathing exercises are applied to assist the client in awareness and non-judgmental acceptance of unpleasant and distressing thoughts and feelings as they occur in the present moment. Mode Deactivation Therapy was developed and is established as an effective treatment for adolescents with problem behaviors and complex trauma-related psychological problems, according to recent publications by Jack A. Apsche and Joan Swart.[106][5]

  • Other programs

Since 2006, research supports promising mindfulness-based therapies for a number of medical and psychiatric conditions, notably chronic pain (McCracken et al. 2007), stress (Grossman et al. 2004), anxiety and depression (Hofmann et al. 2010), substance abuse (Melemis 2008:141-157), and recurrent suicidal behavior(Williams et al. 2006). Bell (2009) gives a brief overview of mindful approaches to therapy, particularly family therapy, starting with a discussion of mysticism and emphasizing the value of a mindful therapist.

Morita therapy

“The Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita, who trained in Zen meditation, developed Morita therapy upon principles of mindfulness and non-attachment. Since the beginnings of Gestalt therapy in the early 1940s, mindfulness, referred to as “awareness”, has been an essential part of its theory and practice.[107]

Adaptation Practice

The British doctor Clive Sherlock developed Adaptation Practice in 1977. Adaptation Practice is a structured programme of self-discipline.[108][109]

Hakomi therapy

Hakomi therapy, under development by Ron Kurtz and others, is a somatic psychology based upon Asian philosophical precepts of mindfulness andnonviolence.[citation needed]


Internal Family Systems Model (IFS), developed by Richard C. Schwartz, emphasizes the importance of both therapist and client engaging in therapy from the Self, which is the IFS term for one’s “spiritual center”. The Self is curious about whatever arises in one’s present experience and open and accepting toward all manifestations.[citation needed]

Mindfulness relaxation

Mindfulness relaxation uses breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.[110]  [6]




[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

Learn More About Mindfulness and Our Services

You can learn more about Mindfulness here;

about history behind Mindfulness here;

about our Mindfulness Classes here;

about our Private Mindfulness Teaching here.