Proven Health And Lifestyle Benefits Of Mindfulness
Donald Altman is an award-winning author, psychotherapist, and former Buddhist monk, probably best expressed the core principle of mindfulness with this quote from his definitive book, The Mindfulness Code: Keys for Overcoming Stress, Anxiety, Fear, and Unhappiness - "If you truly want to change your life, you must first be willing to change your mind."
But really, what is mindfulness and what are the benefits of mindfulness? Zen master, Buddhist teacher, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh defines it as an experience that "shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others." The Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles gives us a more basic definition: "Mindful Awareness is the moment-by-moment process of actively and openly observing one's physical, mental and emotional experiences."
Through all of the varying definitions of mindfulness certain core aspects remain constant: it is a state of complete attention to the present. For those mindful moments you are truly 'living in the moment' - no anticipation of or worrying about the future and not dwelling on or being trapped in the past. This allows you to not only observe your mental processes but also truly take a step back and perceive your emotional state, as well as also bring your physical self to some measure of equilibrium.
Mindfulness Is The Key To A Healthier Life
In America (and the rest of the world at large), when the topic of health is brought up, often the first thing that people think about is their bodies; physical health. This is understandable since it's what we can readily see, it's tangible. We think of our bodies (our physical self) as strong, weak, sometimes breakable, sometimes mendable. However, tangibility aside, these facets can all apply to other aspects of our overall health as well - our mental health and our emotional health. Throughout our lifetime we can be emotionally strong today and emotionally weak tomorrow, we can have a mental breakdown this year and mental rehabilitation the next.
From mind to body to emotions; the benefits of mindfulness are ever present throughout all of these aspects of health.
The Most Common Benefits Of Mindfulness
These are everyday benefits of mindfulness that virtually everyone can take advantage of - proven to work and backed by science.
Mindfulness Can Help To Reduce Stress
This is the one benefit that you've probably heard being parroted by yoga moms and lifestyle gurus thousands of times, but there's a reason why it's talked about so often - it works. Out of all of the benefits of mindfulness, this one often gets the most praise for two reasons:
- First and foremost, you can feel and see the results in your life almost right away.
- Secondly, stress is an ever-present battle that everyone (young, old, etc.) has to deal with in their life so that everyone can attest to its reduction via mindfulness.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is an actual mental health program that does exactly what its name suggests; it utilizes mindfulness as a means of combating stress and life issues that can be difficult to treat in a conventional hospital setting. Mindfulness-based stress reduction has its roots in centuries-old teachings, but it was formally developed in the 1970s at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn. In fact, Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn was a student of Thich Nhat Hanh (Zen master, Buddhist teacher, and peace activist that was mentioned earlier).
The mindfulness-based stress reduction program and other associated studies have given concrete evidence that everyone can benefit from consistent mindfulness practices - from police officers to healthcare professionals, or from parents to veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (Felleman, Stewart, Simpson, & Heppner, 2016).
Even after just a few sessions of mindfulness-based stress reduction, individuals who had, up to that time exhibited the previously mentioned symptoms of stress, were now reporting feelings of:
- Increased focus and attentiveness
- Lowered levels of anxiety
- Higher levels of perceptiveness
- Increased clarity in thought processes
- Overall feelings of calm
Mindfulness Can Actually Make You Smarter
Religions from all corners of the world have made use of mindfulness for hundreds of years. From the spiritual meditative techniques of Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism, to the prayer focused meditative techniques of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the core facets of mindfulness are permeated throughout all of these practices. Throughout history, each religion has used different terminology to explain the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Buddhists have touted it as a means of achieving enlightenment; Hindus have attributed mindfulness as one of the key ways to opening the mind's eye, and Christians have stated that meditation through prayer brings about inner peace and a closer relationship with God.
Whatever personal religious belief you may have, science has found a way to support the basis of all of these claims. Research has shown strong evidence of meditative experiences being associated with increased cortical thickness; especially in brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing (Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH; et al. November 2005).
What does cortical thickness refer to? Well, while being referred to as thick headed is an often uttered insult, cortical thickness suggests the opposite when it comes to the brain. Individuals with increased cortical thickness are quite thick brained, and studies have shown that this is associated with people who are 'smarter' (i.e., more attentive, greater sensory processing abilities, etc.).
Mindfulness Helps You To Get Things Done
This may seem counterintuitive to some degree since mindfulness, and the practices that surround it often promote core beliefs like 'thinking about not thinking.' However, you either sit down and think about what mindfulness actually is or you truly experience it for yourself, then you will realize that this isn't as farfetched as it sounds.
We have already provided evidence that shows how the benefits of mindfulness can seep into aspects of your life, such as helping you deal with stress on the job or the never-ending stresses of parenting. In addition to this, it has been proven that mindfulness promotes a greater attention span and being more focused on your everyday life.
In this digital age, where information and distractions are both just a button press away, being truly focused and attentive to the task at hand is an invaluable life skill to have. Mindfulness teaches focus and discipline over both mind and body, giving you the strength and fortitude to see distractions and easily leave them for after when the task at hand is dealt with.
Mindfulness Strengthens The Body
When it comes to strengthening their bodies, what do most people think about - jogging, eating right, going on a diet, regular visits to the gym? These are undeniably all great ways to take care of your body, strengthen it, and ultimately live a healthy life; however, one often forgotten about means of strengthening the body is mindfulness.
Some easily measurable benefits of mindfulness that are reported include:
- Lowered heart rate
- Higher levels of brain functioning
- Lowered blood pressure
- Increased immune function
Research has also shown that mindfulness, in conjunction with other practices like yoga, can help to facilitate recovery in breast cancer survivors (Tamagawa, Speca, Stephen, Lawlor-Savage, & Carlson, 2015).
Don't Keep Putting Off Your Relationship With Mindfulness
You are never too young or too old to take advantage of thebenefits of mindfulness. From kids and teenagers to parents and the elderly, the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of mindfulness can always be felt. However, like many other things in life that are related to bettering your health (a fitness regimen, maintaining a proper diet, etc.) having a beneficial relationship with mindfulness can often seem extremely intimidating.
This is even truer when it comes to people who simply do not have that much free time on their hands to learn something on their own. This is where having the humility to ask for professional help comes in. Mental health therapist can give you the initial help that you need. They can also assist you by pointing you in the direction of relevant, up-to-date sources of deeper learning, as well as direct you towards respected and experienced professionals in the field.
Mindfulness is risk-free - a harmless practice that only requires a small investment of your time each week. So, whether you are a skeptic or someone with an open mind, there is no denying that, at its worst, it can simply leave your life as it was (highly unlikely). On the other hand, it could greatly improve your life for the better (far more likely). You have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so don't keep putting off your relationship with mindfulness. Getting started today is as easy as closing your eyes and looking inside yourself.