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The Science and Practice of Mindfulness

Written by Kate Smith

, 6 min read

The Science and Practice of Mindfulness

Mindfulness can be described as “knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment”.1 This means allowing ourselves to be in the present moment, so that we’re not thinking so much about what’s happened in the past or what is coming in the future. The idea is to do this without any judgement of ourselves and it gets easier with practice.

The history of mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness has been around for thousands of years, as part of several religions such as Buddhism and as an element of yoga. The popularity of mindfulness outside of religious settings has grown since the 1970s, spurred on by several scientific papers backing its effectiveness at reducing stress.2-13

Modern mindfulness

Roll on to 2020 (cue pandemic) and it is ever more popular. Mindfulness has been proven to help with depression, anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia and stress.14,15 Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have shown that there are changes in the brain occurring in those who have practiced mindfulness as part of a stress reduction course for at least 8 weeks.2,15 The amygdala, a part of the ‘old brain’ involved in the ‘fight or flight’ reaction, is stimulated less and the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with more of the ‘higher functioning’ of the brain and logical thinking, is stimulated more.

Reasons to practice

Everyday mindfulness, or guided meditations, help to break the cycle of rumination and negative thought patterns. With practice you are able to remind your brain that these unpleasant thoughts are often not an imminent threat. This reduces the fight or flight response, lowering cortisol (the stress hormone), reducing anxiety and the stress response.

With 1 in 4 of us experiencing a mental health illness each year, and the majority of us leading fast-paced modern lives with lots of pressures on our time and mind, mindfulness can provide a way to switch off and recharge our brains. This is possible due to a phenomenon called ‘neuroplasticity’, which means our brains can form new pathways and new healthier habits, which help us to stop living our lives on autopilot.16

Mindfulness practice can help people to feel calmer, have improved focus and quality of life, and feel more compassion towards themselves and others. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) also recommends mindfulness as part of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (CBT) for people with depression.

A few simple ways to practice mindfulness

Informal practice:

  • Try to notice the sensations you feel during everyday tasks, such as brushing your teeth or having a shower.
  • When out and about, look out for trees (or even what shoes people are wearing!), listen out for birds and other sounds.
  • Concentrate on your breath using a breathing ladder or by box breathing.

Breathing ladder

Breathe in through your nose counting 1 and out through your mouth counting 1, then breathe in through your nose counting to 2 and out through your mouth counting 2, continue doing this up to 10 and back down to 1.

Box breathing

Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath for 4, breathe out through your mouth for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4 and repeat.

Formal practice:

Guided meditations have become increasingly accessible via apps. 3 minutes a day is usually enough and it is a good idea to try doing it after a daily task to form a habit. You can also formally practice mindfulness as part of yoga.

Top tips

  • It’s normal to get distracted by your thoughts, noticing this is the first step.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself if you get distracted or forget, just try again.
  • It’s not about pushing thoughts away but trying to let them go, like a boat down a river.
  • It gets easier with practice. Try to start with guided mindfulness or mediations and find ones that suit you.
  • Try to attach your practice to an everyday task such as brushing your teeth, that way the habit is more likely to stick.

It is not advised to replace any current helpful measures for your mental health with mindfulness alone, such as medication, therapy, exercise, a healthy diet and whatever else you find useful. It is rather a suggestion to use mindfulness as an extra useful tool, if after practice you find it to be helpful.


The NHS Mindfulness page

Book: ‘Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman

Free YouTube meditations

Headspace, Calm and Smiling Mind apps


  1. Quote by Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre
  2. Gotnik, R. (2016). 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term meditation practice - A systematic review. Brain and Cognition Journal, (108), 32-41.
  3. Turakitwanakan W (2013). Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, Jan;96 Suppl 1:S90-5.
  4. Keng, S. L. et al (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1041-1056.
  5. Crane, RS, Kuyken W. (2012) The implementation of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: Learning from the UK Health Service experience. Mindfulness NY. (4) 246–254.
  6. Merkes M. (2010) Mindfulness-based stress reduction for people with chronic diseases. Australian Journal of Primary Healthcare. 16(3):200-10.
  7. Simpson J, Mapel T.(2011) An investigation into the health benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) for people living with a range of chronic physical illnesses in New Zealand. New Zealand Medical Journal. Jul 8;124(1338):68-75.
  8. Grossman, P et al (2004) Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research 57, no. 1: 35-43.
  9. Piet J, Hougaard E. (2011) The effect of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for prevention of relapse in recurrent major depressive disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review. 31:1032–40.
  10. Kabat-Zinn J. (1982) An outpatient program in behavioural medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry. Apr;4(1):33-47.
  11. Strauss, C et al. (2014) Mindfulness-Based Interventions for People Diagnosed with a Current Episode of an Anxiety or Depressive Disorder: A Meta-Analysis of Randomised Controlled Trials. PLOS ONE. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Jul. 2019]
  12. Taren, A. (2015) Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10 (12), 1758-1768.
  13. Chan, D (2007) Effects of level of meditation experience on attentional focus: is the efficiency of executive or orientation networks improved? Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine Jul-Aug;13(6):651-7.
  14. All it takes is 10 mindful minutes | Andy Puddicombe. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Jul. 2019].
  15. How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains: Sara Lazar at TEDxCambridge 2011 [online] Available at [accessed 12 Jul. 2019]
  16. After watching this, your brain will not be the same | Lara Boyd | TEDxVancouver. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Jul. 2019]. 

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.

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