A wandering mind is a familiar foe to anyone who has a job to do but just. can’t. seem. to. focus. When you’re anxious, the train of worries and fears running through your head makes concentrating that much more difficult.
A small study conducted at the University of Waterloo suggests that just 10 minutes of mindfulness helps. In the study, 82 participants who experience anxiety were given a computer task to complete, but were regularly disrupted. They were then split into two groups: one group listened to a guided meditation for 10 minutes, while the other group listened to an audio book for 10 minutes. Participants were then sent back to the computer while the disruptions continued.
Mindfulness meditation promoted a switch of attention from their internal thoughts to the external environment. It helped them focus on what’s happening right now, in the moment, and not to get trapped in their worries.”
—Mengran Xu, lead researcher, University of Waterloo
The meditators had greater success in staying focused, and, as a result, they performed better on the task. “That was surprising to me,” says lead researcher and psychology PhD candidate Mengran Xu. “Mindfulness meditation promoted a switch of attention from their internal thoughts to the external environment. It helped them focus on what’s happening right now, in the moment, and not to get trapped in their worries.”
How does mindfulness curb rumination?
This study adds to the growing body of evidence that mindfulness could be a powerful ally for people who struggle with ruminating thoughts and internal focus common with anxiety and depression. But, Xu adds, just why it helps is still unknown. “If we know how, we can make it more effective.
He wants to find out. Xu and colleagues have already finished one forthcoming study where participants were instructed in mindfulness meditation, muscle relaxation, or listened to an audio book. Xu says his team wants to see “how each intervention would affect people’s scope of attention, cognition, and problem solving in a hypothetical stressful situation. The aim is to examine if mindfulness practice expands people’s perspective.
“Sometimes [stress] is inevitable, but it depends on how broad your perspective is. Both mindfulness meditation and relaxation can help broaden how people think about things.”
They’re also doing a follow-up study to the mind-wandering research, to gain insight into how other mindfulness practices might impact the switch from internal focus to the external environment.