A 20-Minute Session of Mindfulness Can Ease Physical and Emotional Pain

Research shows that even just 20 minutes of mindfulness can help regulate your emotions.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
February 26, 2020

There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness these days, and if you’re not familiar with the practice, you may be wondering if it’s all hype. Admittedly, I was initially a skeptic too: I’m terrible at traditional meditation, so I lumped mindfulness (moment to moment nonjudgemental awareness and acceptance) in with it and deemed it “not for me” without really giving it a chance.

Then I met and worked with Nina Smiley, Ph.D., the director of Mindfulness Programming at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York and co-author of Mindfulness in Nature. Long story short, I learned that you can practice mindfulness anywhere. For instance, simply being aware and making mental notes of your surroundings — the sounds outside, for example — can be very calming and grounding. Mindfulness forces your ping-ponging thoughts of the past and the future, where our angst often resides, to stay anchored in the present, which creates a sense of serenity and peace.

As it turns out, my experience wasn’t unusual. New research out of Yale University found that even just learning a basic introduction to mindfulness can help people deal with physical pain and negative emotions

Though there’s already research out there on how mindfulness can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, the purpose of this study was to see if a brief 20-minute introduction to the practice for people with no prior experience of it could have a positive impact on them. Spoiler: It could.

The study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, involved taking brain scans of participants while they were shown disturbing images. The researchers observed significant differences in brain signaling pathways in participants who used mindfulness techniques while looking at the upsetting pictures versus when they consumed the images as they normally would. After practicing mindfulness while perusing the distressing visuals, participants reported feeling fewer negative emotions. And interestingly, the changes in the brain signaling pathways did not occur in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates conscious or rational decision-making. This suggests the practice in and of itself, as opposed to the participants conscious willpower, alters the way the participants experienced the negative stimuli.

“The ability to stay in the moment when experiencing pain or negative emotions suggests there may be clinical benefits to mindfulness practice in chronic conditions as well — even without long meditation practice,” Hedy Kober, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at Yale University and corresponding author of the paper said in a statement.

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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