Mindfulness is no longer considered a “soft skill,” but an essential part of overall health care. In the past year alone, we’ve seen a shift from doctors prescribing pills to treat ailments, to physicians prescribing outdoor play, trips to the museum, and mindfulness to treat everything from pain, loneliness, anxiety, and burnout. Researchers are looking into mindfulness-based therapies for PTSD, depression, and even as a therapy for chronic pain to undercut the opioid epidemic.
A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked at just how popular complementary health care—the use of holistic or unconventional health and wellness practices—has become for Americans.
A team of researchers from the National Center for Health Statistics, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health examined the rise of the most popular complementary practices (yoga, meditation, and chiropractic care) in the US over a five-year period.
Of the three main types, yoga is the most popular, but meditation is identified as the fastest-growing trend, seeing a more than threefold leap in users. In 2012, 4.1% reported using meditation, and in 2017, that increased to 14.2%.
Yoga rose from 9.5% in 2012 to 14.3% in 2017. The use of chiropractors increased only slightly, from 9.3% in 2012 to 10.9%.
Why is Meditation So Popular?
Mindfulness as a field of research is growing, and preliminary studies are beginning to show the benefits for the brain, body, and our relationships. Here are a few reasons why people have started—and are sticking to—mindfulness practice.
- Meditation helps you navigate stress, both acute and chronic. Mindful breathing can interrupt our stress and fight-or-flight reactions—preliminary research has found that meditation may “quiet” the amygdala, the area of the brain that responds to stress.
- Regular mindfulness practice improves mental focus. Pulled in too many directions? When we multitask, our concentration levels deplete. As you continue to practice mindfulness meditation, the simple act of returning to the breath, over and over again, builds the “muscle” of attention, helping you both stay on task and recognize distractions. A small study suggests that even 10 minutes of meditation a day can contribute to better focus.
- Meditation boosts compassion—toward yourself and toward others. Studies suggest loving-kindness practices can change our response to suffering, increasing altruistic behavior. Additionally, research on meditators with a long-term practice suggests that the “default mode network” of the brain—where we ruminate and let our thoughts wander when we’re not focused on a particular activity—quiets down, which might indicate Olympic-level meditators do not ruminate as much over their identity.
- Mindfulness reduces bias—toward the negative, and toward others. It’s not a surprise—we tend to focus on the negative. Preliminary research suggests mindfulness might help us shift gears out of our knee-jerk reactivity toward “bad” things. But what about bias on a larger social and psychological scale? Researchers are considering how mindfulness-based approaches might help minimize bias.
- Mindfulness may improve mental health. When combined with traditional approaches, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy may help individuals with anxiety and depression work with rumination and troubling thoughts. (Psychologists stress it is not for everybody—Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce goes deeper in a recent podcast.)
Why do you meditate? Share your story with Mindful
While the research continues to grow, and we continue to report on this emerging field, we’d love to know: why you meditate? Please share your “Why I Meditate” story in the comments below.