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How Mindfulness Really Works

Mindfulness is one of my my top 3 tools for training the skill-set of stress resilience (as described in my Stress Resilience Blueprint).

Chances are, you've heard of it – it's making waves in the world of psychological health and well-being, in part thanks to a growing body of research evidence demonstrating its efficacy as a therapeutic tool for anxiety, depression, and health issues.

The research-proven effects of mindfulness include:

  • reduces anxiety
  • increases empathy
  • reduces aggression
  • helps depression – at the least it makes recurrence less likely
  • improves cognitive performance, including working memory and other aspects of executive function
  • induces measurable neuroplastic changes in the brain, including strengthening activity in brain regions involved in attention and body awareness, and decreases the influence of the amygdala (which triggers anxiety and other emotions). Not just brain activity but structure is affected – e.g. a thickening of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive function.

Impressive as this list, I don't think it really gets to the heart of what makes mindfulness such a powerful method – it doesn't make clear the mechanisms by which these benefits are gained. In this article I offer my take on it.

Essentially, mindfulness trains all five of the core mind-body skills I listed as the foundation of stress resilience, and three in particular: self-awareness, attention and acceptance (mental letting go).

What Is Mindfulness?

Probably the most commonly quoted definition of mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn's: “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”.


It's kind of obvious that mindfulness trains attention. As a meditation practice, at least in its simplest form, the instruction is to maintain attention in some object of focus, such as the breath, and simply return to that focus repeatedly when the mind wanders. In an earlier article I explain why attention and focus are so important to well-being generally.


Usually the object of focus in mindfulness meditation is some aspect of experience, most commonly bodily experience. As you practise you become more and more sensitive to the rich sensory experience of the body, and processes such as the breathing. As I said earlier, the brain centres associated with body awareness (e.g. the insula) are strengthened, both in terms of their function and structure. It's no surprise: neuroplastic change is the rule when you repeatedly spend time and effort in some activity.

Acceptance, Or Mental Letting Go

For me this one is the real power of mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn sums this up in just one word, “non-judgemental”, which is perhaps not ideal, so let me explain it further.

In mindfulness we are open to whatever is there in our present-moment experience, with a spirit of curiosity and sense of possibility. We let go of expectations, neither rejecting experiences we don't like or judge unworthy, nor grasping after experiences we do want or judge worthy.

This attitude or mindset of acceptance can spill over into your life, even when you're not formally practising. Painful thoughts and emotions are inevitable but if we find the middle way between struggling against them on the one hand, and getting sucked in and overwhelmed by them on the other, then we at least lmit the tendency to whip them up into something worse.

Accessing & Sustaining Positivity

Positive emotion can't be forced, or turned on, on demand. All we can do is be open to it, and welcome it and nurture it when it does show up. To develop positivity we need the mindful mindset of openness and receptivity.

How To Get Better At Mindfulness

Summarising the above, I'm suggesting that there is a skill-set of mindfulness, or even that mindfulness is a skill-set. One can become more skilled at mindfulness. I'd even go so far as to suggest that if you commit to practice mindfulness on an on-going basis, you should become more skilled, and if you're not, then something is wrong. This view might seem a little radical given the way mindfulness is taught in a secular context, but actually I think some of the best meditation teachers in the world would agree (see for example "The Mind Illuminated" by Culadasa / John Yates Ph.D.).

The way to become skilled in mindfulness or meditation is to hone the component skills I've listed through practice. I think biofeedback is a powerful tool for doing this.


I came across an academic paper by some leading mindfulness researchers which made a very similar case for the mechanisms of mindfulness. It's a much fuller account than what I offer here – you might like to read it.

How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective

Mindfulness is a key part of my Stress Resilient Mind programme which you can read more about here.

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