Just How Exactly Does Mindfulness Improve Our Mood?

download.jpeg

(This is the third installation in a six part series on the known benefits of mindfulness and meditation. For the intro, click here.)

Picture for a moment a group of about a dozen patients in disposable gowns, sitting together around a folding table in a locked unit in a major research hospital. Their faces are in various states of distress – some angry, some anxious, others drooping with despair. Some guy in a sports coat (okay, me) leads them through a five-minute meditation on the breath. Then they all open their eyes and look around.

What happens?

About half the room comes to life. You can actually see some hidden force re-inhabit people’s eyes. When asked to report, patients say things like, “I have no idea why, but I feel better” or “My thoughts were still there but I had some room around them.”

Whatever intervention we do next, whether it is a thought log or distress tolerance skills, those five or six people who “woke up” during the meditation often come away from the group filled with a quality that has been shown time and again to predict positive outcomes in psychotherapy – hope.

Granted, it’s only half the room. But when you think about the population – adults admitted to an inpatient psychiatry unit, often following a suicide attempt – half the room is no small feat.

So what lifted? Where do people come back from? And how?

Rumination, the mind’s capacity to turn things over endlessly, like a cow chewing cud, is a mood killer. Research shows that rumination is almost never positive. Evidence suggests that this cycling of blah thoughts is causal in depression and anxiety disorders. In short, as a highly cited article from Harvard profs Matthew Killingsworth and  Daniel Gilbert states, “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

Or as Richie and Dan explain in Altered Traits (p. 152), when the brain has nothing to do, the default mode network is activated. This network has to do with highly self-referential thinking and is associated with a kind of affective dullness.

However, when we practice mindfulness, even for just a few minutes, the default mode network is inhibited and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is activated. In other words, we become more focused on present-moment awareness. Correspondingly, our mood improves.

(For another blog post about how mindfulness improves your mood, click here.)

So where are people coming back from? They are coming back from the highly repetitive, very self-referential, negative thinking that we call rumination. In the language of the mindfulness literature, they are “decentering” from their thoughts – learning to observe without being caught up in them. So the simple act of focusing on the breath breaks the cycle of rumination and brings attention back – back to the body, back to the room, and back into relationship with others.

In my experience, once patients have broken – even for just five minutes – the ruminative cycle, they can be far more receptive to new information, and their thoughts become more workable, more inclined to positive change.

*

Devon and I will be teaching in Kauai, Ashland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Denmark, and other destinations in the next few months. For more info, please click here.

Craig Hase