Both techniques are used to boost mental health and clarity and treat conditions like anxiety, depression, and stress. In this Forbes article, Mindpath Health’s Julian Lagoy, MD, and Kiana Shelton, LCSW, discuss both practices and how to use them.
Meditation and mindfulness are popular techniques used to boost mental health and clarity. Even better, science backs them as viable therapies for various mental wellness concerns including anxiety, stress, and depression.
The two concepts are often conflated, but while they are similar, mindfulness and meditation are practiced differently and can have varying functions. Learn more about how they differ, how they can benefit you and how to start your own mindfulness or meditation routine.
What Is Mindfulness and Meditation?
Mindfulness and meditation are similar and linked; mindfulness is sometimes referred to as a type of meditation, and vice versa. The exercises “work hand in hand,” says Peter Brooks, a meditation and mindfulness teacher in Baltimore. “You can be mindful without being in a state of meditation, but you cannot be in a state of meditation without being mindful.”
Still, the terms aren’t interchangeable, as there are key distinctions between them.
Mindfulness Can Be Practiced ‘Anywhere’
Mindfulness means being intentionally aware of the present moment with an attitude of openness and acceptance.
“In other words, mindfulness is being aware of what is going on at present without judgment,” says Julian C. Lagoy, M.D., a psychiatrist in San Jose, California at the mental health outpatient organization Mindpath Health.
Mindfulness can be practiced “anywhere, anytime,” adds Brooke Schwartz, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in Los Angeles, giving the examples of mindfully watching a movie or even going to the bathroom. One style of mindfulness is grounding, where the goal is to anchor yourself to the present moment through intentional thinking and feeling. She notes that practicing mindfulness may require refocusing your attention when it wanders.
Meditation Requires Intentional Focus
Meditation can refer to mental training techniques—such as guided (led by someone else), movement-based (movement or body positioning that focuses on breathing, such as tai chi) and visual meditation (thinking of an image of something or someone and focusing your intention towards that image)—as well as the resulting goal of the techniques, which is an altered state of consciousness that connects you to a deeper inner self.
“Traditionally we think of meditation as more a formal and time-structured practice,” says Kiana Shelton, a licensed clinical social worker with Mindpath Health.
Brooks adds that there is a common misconception that meditation involves “tuning out your thoughts.” Instead, “a state of meditation is achieved” through mindfulness, or thinking and observing intentionally without judgments. All forms of meditation require mindfulness.
Mindfulness vs. Meditation: When to Use Which Practice
Mindfulness is all about being aware of the present and your surroundings without judgment. Dr. Lagoy says mindfulness is particularly useful in combating consistent negative thoughts. “It can help someone be less self-judgmental about their own feelings,” he says.
Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily require you to pause what you’re doing at a given moment, which makes it a good practice to employ at any time, even while on the go. Schwartz gives the example of driving on the highway and finding yourself stuck in a thought spiral. “Practicing mindfulness (e.g., by noticing what your hands feel like on the wheel or by listening to the song on the radio) is likely more accessible and safe than beginning a meditation practice,” she says.
Meditation aims to connect the mind and the body and to bring mental and physical peace. Meditation does require more of a pause in your day, as it requires not just attention, but concentration as well. What you concentrate on, or the goal of your meditation practice, can vary between sessions. “One person may set the goal of tapping into how their body feels while meditating,” Schwartz says. “Another might wish to transport themselves mentally to a calm space.”
Benefits of Mindfulness and Meditation
Anyone can benefit from mindfulness and meditation, says Dr. Lagoy, and studies show that these practices are beneficial for specific concerns, including:
Pain relief. In a small study of 78 healthy adults in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers concluded that mindfulness meditation (meditating using the practice of mindfulness) “reduces pain by engaging mechanisms supporting the cognitive control of pain.”
Anxiety and stress. Mindfulness meditation can also moderately reduce anxiety, suggesting its benefit as an adjunctive form of anxiety treatment, according to research in JAMA Internal Medicine and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
Other studies have found that practicing mindfulness may improve the body’s stress responses, such as cortisol secretion (the body increases cortisol levels when stressed) and HRV coherence (the alignment between heart rate variability, respiration and the baroreflex, which regulates blood pressure).
Depression. Mindfulness meditation has positive effects on depression as a standalone or adjunct therapy, too, per a 2019 review in American Family Physician, and “its effects can last for six months or more.”
The Society for Integrative Oncology also recommends meditation as a therapy for during and after breast cancer treatment to help with anxiety and stress reduction, depression and mood disorders and for improving quality of life.
General mental wellness. By learning to exert more control over your mental process, meditation can help facilitate calmness, clarity and improved concentration.
Are There Any Mindfulness or Meditation Drawbacks?
Dr. Lagoy notes that the “only potential drawback [to mindfulness and meditation] is the amount of time and patience needed to do it well,” since they require “skill and effort in order for it to work.” He adds that not only do you need to learn how to practice mindfulness and/or meditation, but you also need discipline to continue with it.
“Meditation is generally considered to be safe for healthy people,” according to the NCCIH. A review of studies on meditation found “no apparent negative effects of mindfulness-based interventions, and their general health benefits justify their use as adjunctive therapy for patients with depression and anxiety disorders,” states the organization.
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How to Create a Simple Mindfulness or Meditation Routine
Mindfulness can be practiced and employed throughout your regular daily routine, but it can be helpful to start with something you already enjoy, says Schwartz. For example, if you love making coffee, she suggests paying attention to your five senses the next time you make a cup. Being aware of what you physically feel, see, hear, smell and taste is an act of mindfulness.
Shelton also recommends following the STOP acronym to practice mindfulness:
S: Stop what you are doing
T: Take a breath
O: Observe your thoughts
P: Proceed (either continue what you were doing or change course, depending on what you’ve just observed)
Similarly, meditation beginners should start slow and easy. Shelton suggests starting out with a guided or silent meditation of no more than five to 10 minutes. Guided meditations typically walk you through the techniques and help you understand the basics of a meditation practice. You can find guided meditations online or in meditation apps. Silent meditation involves not speaking in order to focus on physical sensations and see things as they are.
Shelton says that if you can tolerate these forms of meditation at five to 10 minutes, feel free to add increments of five until you reach a desired window.
Whatever you choose, it helps to start small, even if that amounts to 15 seconds or 30 seconds, and build up your practice from there. Brooks also notes that meditation and mindfulness is “not a one-size-fits-all solution” and that a routine “must be developed on an individual basis.”
When to See a Doctor
Mindfulness and meditation are helpful therapies, but Dr. Lagoy and Schwartz urge seeking a doctor’s help if:
- Your symptoms are not getting better and they are significantly affecting your life
- It hasn’t reduced your emotional or physical suffering
- You’re concerned about your safety
“Each day we go through an influx of emotions and feelings,” Brooks says, noting that mindfulness and meditation can help us address our specific needs each day. “It all comes back to being present, and providing yourself with a judgment-free zone to achieve a calm but engaged state of being.”
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