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The Positive Impact of Mindfulness Training Is Felt Six Years Later

Learning how to stay focused in the present has beneficial long-term results.

Much research has linked mindfulness training with better physical and mental health. But few of us have the time or patience to commit to a lifelong daily practice.

Good news: That may not be necessary. A new study of Scandinavian health-care professionals finds those who took a seven-week mindfulness course as a part of their schooling reported higher levels of well-being six years later.

"These effects were found despite relatively low levels of adherence to formal mindfulness practice," writes a research team led by Michael de Vibe of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Its results suggest the training imparted healthy ways to cope with stress—and those lessons stuck.

The study, published in the online journal PLoS One, featured 288 medical and clinical psychology students from two Norwegian universities. During either their first or second year of formal training, half the aspiring doctors and therapists participated in a seven-week mindfulness-based stress program.

The program, adapted from a similar one designed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, featured weekly 90-minute sessions, supplemented by home practice. The course explored "the value of self-acceptance, tolerance of thought and feelings, and notions such as 'I am not my thoughts,'" the researchers write.

Booster sessions were offered to the students on a yearly basis; fewer than half attended even one. At the six-year mark, 58 percent reported they practiced "formal mindfulness exercises," but the average amount of time they spent on these was only 15 minutes per week.

At that point, they also took a series of tests designed to measure their everyday level of mindfulness, their preferred coping methods, and their overall well-being.

The researchers found that, compared to those who did not take the course, those who did "exhibited significantly grater increases in dispositional mindfulness, and more problem-focused coping styles over time."

This reflects the fact they developed the habit of dealing with stressful situations with problem-focused rather than avoidance-focused strategies. The latter include "ignoring, blaming, or avoiding;" the former involve "active problem-solving and positive cognitive reappraisal," which has been defined as "recognizing the negative pattern your thoughts have fallen into, and changing that pattern."

"These findings suggest that mindfulness training has both short-term and long-term effects on coping," the researchers conclude. "These effects (six years on) were found despite poor to moderate adherence to formal mindfulness practice."

So if you're hesitant to take that mindfulness meditation class because of fears you won't keep up the practice, just do it. These results suggest that, once learned, certain positive methods for dealing with stress become ingrained, and prove highly helpful—even if you can't remember the last time you closed your eyes and watched your thoughts.