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Mindfulness is the latest fad in the sphere of personal development. As every trend, it becomes a subject to marketing, trivialization and mythologizing. But skillfully applied practice of mindfulness helps to decrease suffering, improves health and increases happiness, says Paweł Holas, psychotherapist, psychiatrist, mindfulness teacher and lecturer at SWPS University.

Research shows that mindfulness has a positive impact on health, stress relief, happiness and sex life. It improves body awareness and the correlated transformation of the “self” (grounded more in being aware of oneself and less in thinking). It enhances regulation of attention and emotions and results in an increased self-awareness. All these changes are reflected in the neuroplasticity of the brain.

Key principles of mindfulness

Mindfulness stems form the Buddhist philosophy that goes back 2,500 years, although it can also be found in other contemplative traditions, including the Judeo-Christian tradition. In ancient texts, mindfulness was described as a method that was easily available to everyone. A method that helped to reduce suffering and supported the development of positive values, such as wisdom, empathy, and emotional balance. It is a state of consciousness that focuses attention on thoughts, feelings, and senses as well as the environment, while keeping an open and curious, but not a judging attitude.

So if you are taking a deep breath right now, be aware of your breathing or if you are drinking tea, feel the liquid on your tongue, sense its temperature, taste it and smell it. Try to notice what is happening in your body and in your head. Pay attention to your thoughts and to your imagination, but do not engage in them and do not judge them. Go back to experiencing your breathing (drinking tea, etc.), and take it for what it is. Just be in the moment. Don’t try to achieve anything extraordinary.

The best way to improve the experience of mindfulness is regular practice and exercises, which come in the form of meditation. Research shows that even a few minutes of daily mindfulness practice improves health, psychological wellbeing, brain functioning and relations with others. If you regularly spend 20-40 minutes per day on meditation, there is a chance that the positive effects will increase. You may practice classic forms of meditation according to contemplative traditions, but people who have emotional problems may participate in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training or the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), developed in 2000 as a method of preventing relapses of depression. These therapeutic programs support development of participants. They are based on traditional forms of meditation that have been adapted to suit the busy, stressed and suffering from various disorders people from the Western cultures.

Even a few minutes of daily mindfulness practice improves health, psychological wellbeing, brain functioning and relations with others.

Myths about mindfulness

Firs of all, mindfulness is not a religious practice, but a method of working with one’s own mind and it can be practiced by anyone, regardless of their religion. Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed the first mindfulness training (MBSR), abandoned the use of the word “meditation” over 30 years ago, in order to avoid unnecessary religious connotations.

Secondly, practicing mindfulness is not supposed to lead to other states of consciousness. It is not a method of hypnosis or a relaxation technique, either. Although relaxation is a frequent side effect of mindfulness, it is not its goal in itself. We are talking about awareness, and even about meta-awareness: the ability to notice, to be aware of everything that is happening right there, in your current experience, while not allowing your habitual thinking and reactions to hijack your attention.

Thirdly, practicing mindfulness is not meant to isolate you from life and its problems. It does not lead to thoughtlessness and it does not distance you from reality. On the contrary, mindfulness reverses your habitual tendency to repress and avoid experiencing difficult feelings, such as thoughts or emotions, which often occurs in people with emotional disorders. The effect of mindfulness, which brings you closer to the real experience, weather it is positive or negative, and to accepting it with openness, but without identifying with the experience, is a mechanism that positively impacts your health. It reduces fear and lessens the tendency to worry about everything. Research shows that this ability improves emotional self-regulation.

Another myth claims that mindfulness is something obvious and that anyone can teach it without a long training in meditation and without perfecting their skills under the guidance of experienced teachers. However, without the proper knowledge and, most of all, without one’s own intense experience and identification with the values related to mindfulness, teaching mindfulness might not bring the desired effects. On the contrary, it may lead to discouragement and aversion.

Currently, mindfulness is very trendy in Poland. It is often taught by people who are not properly trained. Media promote mindfulness as a simple technique that helps to achieve personal success and happiness. This phenomenon that robs mindfulness of its ethical roots and its references to universal values, such as empathy and wisdom, is known as McMindfulness and has been popular in the Western countries for over a decade. Although on the one hand it leads to the trivialization of this wise legacy of humanity, on the other hand it helps to promote the idea and practice of mindfulness, which allows more people to discover the method for themselves, it helps them to learn more about the practice and implement it in their lives.

Less stress, more wellbeing

Research on the effects of mindfulness training in healthy people as well as people suffering from mental disorders confirms an improvement in their psycho-physical wellbeing and an increase of positive qualities, such as empathy, openness towards others, acceptance and self-awareness, which are also mentioned in Buddhist psychology.

Studies show that the mindfulness trait is related to self-esteem, life satisfaction, openness to experience and capability of self-empathy. These characteristics are co-related with psychological wellbeing. It has also been shown that mindfulness training provides health benefits, such as experiencing positive emotions, stress and anxiety relief, preventing depression, decrease in emotional dysregulation, improved emotional self-regulation (e.g. decreased tendency to substance and alcohol abuse). These positive effects have been confirmed by multiple studies, which included thousands of people, who participated in 8-week MBSR and MBCT programs of mindfulness.

The contemporary scientific knowledge, including neurobiology, proves without a doubt that practicing mindfulness is beneficial for your physical and mental health and for your relationships with others.

Sex and mindfulness

You wouldn’t want to be distracted during sex, would you? Research shows that people tend to be more focused during sex than while working. However, it does happen that some people worry, try to solve problems or fantasize during sex, instead of concentrating on their partner and on the sensual pleasure. If you suffer from sexual dysfunction, negative thinking (e.g. fear of erectile dysfunction) and anxiety occur significantly more often and negatively impact the quality of your sex life. Studies show that sexual dysfunctions occur in 40 percent of women and in 30 percent of men. Men usually suffer from premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction. Women, on the other hand, from low libido, sensory dysfunction, lack of orgasm and dyspareunia.

According to meta-analysis published in 2015, the practice of mindfulness has been shown to reduce sexual dysfunctions in women. The same applies to men, although there have been less studies involving men and more so-called case studies. Mindfulness helps you to be more in-tune with your partner and allows for a more intense experience of the moment. Therefore, the joy of sex and the pleasure of being close with the partner is heightened. Moreover, mindfulness helps divert attention from the habitual excessive concentration on sexual performance or on reaching orgasm. According to Marsha Lucas, psychologist and researcher, orgasm often eclipses all other experiences and feelings while mindfulness allows to notice sensual pleasures, thoughts, emotions and the environment.

Mindful sex means the ability to observe and to describe everything that is happening in your body and mind, without automatic categorization into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. If you gain this capability, you will stop thinking about other things and you will be able to better enjoy sex.

Research conducted at Brown University in the United States, indicates that women who practice mindfulness are more aware of their bodies, including signs of sexual arousal, than women from the control group. It is related to the activity of the insular cortex in the brain. Sara Lazar, psychologist, and her research team form Harvard University have shown that mindfulness training is associated with increased cortical thickness and its activity. This increase is negatively correlated with experienced stress. In other words, by an increased body awareness, mindfulness practice helps to lower stress levels and improves the ability to experience arousal and orgasm. Researchers claim that mindfulness improves sexual function and joy of sex in women. Thanks to a lower tendency to negative self-assessment, it is easier for women to accept their bodies, their sexuality and to experience arousal in situations, which they previously regarded as “dirty”.

Similar results are being shown in the studies on the effects of mindfulness in women suffering from cancer of the reproductive organs and the correlated dysfunctions of arousal and libido. It turns out that mindfulness indeed improves sexual functions, decreases stress and allows these women to better enjoy intimate relations with their partners.

Professor Lori Brotto, expert in women’s sexual health, has also shown an improvement in sexual functions in women with the history of sexual abuse. Research results also indicate a positive impact of mindfulness on pain relief related to sexual intercourse (dyspareunia), which is a frequent problem for many women. In a study involving 200 women suffering from vestibulodynia (i.e. pain in the entrance of the vagina, a form of dyspareunia) a few-week mindfulness practice, which involved awareness of sounds, breathing and the body, resulted in a significant reduction of symptoms.

Mindfulness impacts yet another key factor of a successful sexual life – it improves the quality of communication between the partners, hence it improves the relationship. There is also hope that mindfulness training may reduce addiction to pornography, which has become a significant social problem among men.

The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 1/16”.
The magazine is available here »

About the Author

Paweł Holas - psychotherapist, psychiatrist and mindfulness teacher, including the MBSR and MBCT methods. Head of the Mindfulness and Empathy: Foundation, Research and Psychotherapy professional certification and training program at SWPS University. Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Warsaw. Co-founder (in 2008) and the first Chair of the Polish Association of Mindfulness.