How Meditation and Mindfulness Affect Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 25, 2021

Meditation and mindfulness have been used for thousands of years, often in religious contexts. In modern times, they’ve been used to treat some mental and physical conditions. 

Mindfulness and meditation have many proven health benefits. They can even change our brain chemistry and body. These simple practices have a lot of power and may improve mental health. 

Meditation is a way to focus your mind. There are many types, but it's important to understand that meditation is about training your mind to find calm and clarity.

Mindfulness is a meditation technique that focuses on attention and acceptance. Attention sets the foundation of mindfulness. It’s about bringing your awareness to yourself: your breath, your body, and your mind. Then you notice and accept the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that come up.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, like doing yoga, learning breathing techniques, or seeking guided meditation classes. There are also mindfulness-based therapies. 

Two of the best-known therapies are:

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR). This is an intensive treatment method. It involves group classes and exercises for 8 weeks to build mindfulness through yoga and meditation. 

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). This is a therapy method that combines the more traditional cognitive behavioral therapy with mindfulness to treat depression.

The most traditional way to meditate is a seated method in which your back is straight and your hands are relaxed in your lap or next to your thighs. The point is to simply relax and not focus on any one thought or physical sensation. 

At the beginning, this might be uncomfortable. Another way to ease yourself into meditation and mindfulness practices is to try to build the following ideas in your daily life:

Slow down. Appreciating and savoring every single moment is a central tenet of mindfulness. Noticing the sensations, smells, and feelings throughout your day can be vital in breaking old mental habits. 

Pick a time. Setting a specific time every day to check in with yourself and be mindful of your surroundings can be very helpful in making meditation and mindfulness a part of your daily routine.  

Break it up. Changing up your daily routine can help you see the world in a new way and help you notice more things in your everyday life.

Let your thoughts come up. This might be one of the most challenging things to do, but it’s important to notice your thoughts without getting distracted. Letting your thoughts go without judgment or attachment is key to meditating. It can help to include physical activity like walking or yoga in your day. 

Name your thoughts and your feelings. When you build the skill of naming exactly what you're feeling or thinking, you better notice your thoughts and feelings. For example, if you’re having stressful thoughts, tell yourself “I feel anxious” so those thoughts pass through you. 

Stay in the present. If you notice yourself sliding back into thoughts of the past or worries for the future, remind yourself of your surroundings. 

Certain things about how meditation works are unclear, and they overlap with issues that modern brain chemistry hasn't fully explored. But many studies have focused on meditation, and it’s been found to change the way our brains work.

A 2012 study compared the brain images from 50 adults who meditated regularly with those from 50 people who didn’t meditate. Those who meditated had more folds in the outer layers of the brain, which is thought to improve memory. 

Another study found that meditation practice stimulates a part of the brain that handles emotions, even when people weren’t meditating. 

Show Sources


American Psychological Association: “Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Meditation: In Depth.”

National Health Service: “Mindfulness.”

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