Last time I talked about the theory of using mindfulness to help you deal with stressful situations.
This week I'm moving to a more deeper impact that practicing has on your life - both the physical benefits, and the emotional ones too - related to your brain, your relationships, everything around you.
The Physical Benefits of Mindfulness
Although mindfulness is often referred at as a form of mind training, the approach has many benefits for your body. This is often because mindfulness reduces excessive stress, and stress is associated with many physical ailments.
Here are some of the key positive effects of practicing mindfulness exercises and meditations on a regular basis.
More Relaxed Muscles
When you become stressed, your muscles tighten up. There’s a reason for this. Stress
engages your body’s fight-or-flight response. Your muscles are preparing to work hard to enable you to run away or fight. Mindfulness helps you notice the tension in your body as one sign that your stress levels are rising. With this awareness you can begin taking action to reduce the stress. Additionally, the very awareness of the tension often reduces it.
I remember working with a woman who suffered from what she called chronic tension. Her whole body was so tense that moving was painful and sometimes impossible. Traditional relaxation exercises didn’t seem to help her. But by learning mindfulness she learned to become aware of that physical tension without trying to change it. She learned to be a little less judgmental and a little more accepting of the sensations. This led to an easing and reduction in that tension and a reduction in pain too.
A Healthier Heart
When you’re stressed, your heart beats faster and your blood pressure rises to prepare you to run or fight. Your body reacts as if you’re under attack. Heart disease is the number-one cause of death in Americans each year, and anxiety is one of the contributing factors. Initial indications showed that for a group suffering from heart disease, mindfulness helped. The group had a reduction in anxiety, improved ability to manage emotions, and a better style of coping with stress and took more effective control of their health.
Improved Relationship with Food
Do you have trouble digesting your food? Another problem with the stress response is your digestive system stops working effectively. Your body is reacting as if it’s about to be eaten by a tiger. If you’re going to end up as someone else’s lunch, there’s no point wasting your energy digesting your own breakfast. Lowering stress through efforts like mindfulness can ease digestive distress. Applying mindfulness specifically to eating also prepares your body to digest: being more conscious as you eat, you taste your food and avoid multitasking, and your brain sends the appropriate messages to your digestive system to begin its work. This is mindful eating. Studies have shown mindful eating can reduce binge eating and overeating, can help you lose weight, can reduce chronic conditions like anorexia and bulimia, and help with the symptoms of Type 2 diabetes.
A Longer Life--Through Protection of Your DNA
This is an incredible finding. Just as the ends of shoelaces have a tip to protect them from fraying, so the chromosomes in your cells have a cap on them to stop them from fraying. These protective caps are called telomeres. Before it was thought that the wearing out of these caps was inevitable, resulted in cells dying, eventually leading to death of the cell due to "old age." But in 2009, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize for discovering that a substance in the body called telomerase protects the telomeres. More telomerase would mean a longer life. And here comes the good news: mindfulness increases the amount of telomerase. This helps to reduce or perhaps reverse the aging of your cells. So be mindful and look young and vibrant!
Better Immune Function
One other key function that gets almost shut down when you’re stressed is your immune system. Your immune system is a long-term protective system but gets overridden by the stress response, which is your short-term survival mechanism. If you’re chronically stressed, you’re much more likely to get sick. Research by Professor Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin and colleagues found that, following an 8-week mindfulness course, participants produced more antibodies to fight flu, compared to those who hadn’t gone through the mindfulness course. Other research has shown mindful practitioners miss fewer days of work due to respiratory infections and have milder symptoms for a shorter time.
A 2009 study of 48 people who tested HIV positive showed mindfulness may be very beneficial. The group that did an 8-week meditation course had no reduction in the number of white blood cells--a key part of the immune system. However, the nonmeditating group’s level of white blood cells went down.
Pain Relief--More than Morphine
A small study published in Journal of Neuroscience in 2011 found mindfulness reduced pain intensity by 40%. That’s even more effective than morphine! The research found this pain relief seemed to be due to a different way your brain works after becoming more mindful. The researchers trained the participants in mindfulness for 1 hour and then asked them to practice mindfulness while they heated a small part of their skin to 120°F for 5 minutes--a painful experience for most people! Several other studies have found that mindfulness helped people manage not only acute pain but chronic pain too
I find this is one of the first benefits that people mention when they begin practicing mindfulness, and there's research to back up their claims. Research from the University of Utah found mindfulness helped people regulate their emotions during the day and experience "lower activation" at bedtime, which may boost the quality of sleep.
Considering that you spend about a third of your life asleep, practicing mindfulness just to sleep better makes sense, but it also can help reduce stress. Mindfulness reduces your stress and thereby improves your sleep. The improvement in sleep in turn makes you feel even less stressed. The mindfulness begins a positive feedback loop.
Benefits for Your Brain and Mind
These are the benefits of mindfulness that most people are familiar with, particularly the way mindfulness improves focus and helps to calm your mind. But there’s more to mindfulness than that! Here’s what the research shows:
A Clearer Mind
Several studies have shown that mindfulness practice reduces rumination or worrying. Research in 2009 published in the Journal of Science and Healing found participants of an 8-week MBSR course had greater levels of well-being and reduced rumination. In my experience, one of the beneficial side effects is creativity. When I practice mindfulness, I often end up having ideas that help in my daily work or home life.
A Calmer Mind
Many studies have proven the stress reduction effects of mindfulness. That’s obviously what this book is all about. Exactly why mindfulness reduces stress is actually unknown. One fascinating study, published in 2010 in the journal Emotion, explored the subject through the use of film. Two groups were asked to watch a sad movie. One group had completed an MBSR course, and the other had not. Brain scans reveals that the meditators had less brain activity compared to the nonmeditators, and the brain activity was distinctly different compared to the brain activity before doing the mindfulness training. This seems to suggest that mindfulness enables emotions to be processed differently in the brain and may be one way stress is reduced through mindfulness practice.
In particular, mindfulness boosts a type of memory that we all have called working memory. Think of your working memory as being like a little whiteboard. You use the whiteboard to make notes about what people are saying to you and what you need to do at the moment. A weak working memory is like having a very small whiteboard. You easily forget what you’re doing and get distracted by other things. A larger whiteboard means you can remember what you’re doing and remain less distracted by other people or thoughts. Stress has been shown to reduce working memory capacity, and mindfulness has been shown to increase working memory capacity. So, mindfulness makes your little whiteboard a bit bigger. Improved working memory is associated with improved learning ability, focus, and skill in regulating emotions.
As you may have guessed, mindfulness improves your ability to focus. In fact, it improves focus a lot. Research in 2009 at Liverpool John Moores University found mindfulness meditators significantly better than nonmeditators in all measures of attention. When you focus better, you are more likely to get into a "flow" state of mind, an absorbed mental mode associated with high levels of well-being--the opposite of excessive stress. Improved focus also leads to a greater sense of achievement and greater efficiency, so more time for friends and family. You feel more in control rather than out of control.
Call it happiness, well-being, or flow--mindfulness helps to raise it. The sense that you are happy is linked to so many other benefits, including improved relationships, longer life, and better performance and outcomes at work. Plus, being happy feels good. The effect of mindfulness on happiness was found in research published in the Journal of Behavioural Medicine in 2008. The scientists found higher levels of well- being for those who participated in the MBSR course. Those who did more meditation and yoga practice at home had higher levels of mindfulness and well- being. The previously mentioned research by Killingsworth and Gilbert also found that people whose minds wandered less were happier.
Protection Against Depression
One of the problems with chronic stress is the emergence of depression. The link between stress and depression is complex, but there’s certainly a link. Chronic stress changes the hormones in your bloodstream, making depression more likely. And when you’re under too much pressure, you’re less likely to socialize, eat healthily, or exercise – you can end up not looking after yourself. According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people suffer from depression and it's the leading cause of disability worldwide. Here in the UK, mindfulness is used to treat recurring clinical depression by the National Health Service (NHS). A group course in mindfulness called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, has been found to be 50% more effective than the usual treatments. Mindfulness helps you stop fighting the feeling of sadness. Instead you learn to accept the feeling, notice the associated thoughts and physical sensations, with compassion toward yourself. This shift helps to prevent sadness from being prolonged and intensified and becoming depression.
Reduction in Loneliness
One of the key factors that raises stress in older adults is loneliness. Humans are social beings, and without social contact feelings of loneliness can become overwhelming. Programs designed to increase social contact in older adults have so far been unsuccessful. Recent research at Carnegie Mellon University has found mindfulness meditation helped to reduce loneliness. Interestingly, they found a reduction in the expression of a gene associated with inflammation. So, mindfulness was impacting on their genes. Inflammation is associated with cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and neurodegenerative diseases, so a reduction in this gene expression is a very promising finding too.
Anxiety is the feeling of fear, tension, or worry often caused by a stressful event.
Stress isn’t a diagnosable mental disorder, but anxiety can be. An anxiety disorder develops when your fight-or-flight system is switched on most of the time and you feel fear to an extent that it affects your everyday ability to function. In the past, treatment involved trying to change thoughts. But with mindfulness, the idea is to change your relationship to thoughts and move from avoiding feelings to approaching them. In 2012, researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway looked at 19 different studies and found mindfulness-based approaches to offer robust and substantial reductions in anxiety.
Lower Anger Levels
Anger arises when things are not going the way you want them to. Sometimes that anger is unnecessary and unhelpful. Frequent anger can be very destructive to your work and home life, increasing your stress. When you’re feeling stressed, you’re much more likely to get angry too. It’s been found that anger is fueled by "hot thoughts"--negative, aggressive thinking patterns. Mindfulness helps you notice and reduce unhelpful thinking patterns and so can reduce your feelings of anger when appropriate. This research was published in the journal Aggressive Behaviour back in 2009.
Relationships matter--a lot. Human relationships have been shown in study after study to be the number-one factor that increases happiness. People with lots of good-quality relationships, and that includes friends or family members, are likely to have a higher resilience toward stress. This is because when difficulties arise in their lives, they have someone to talk to.
Mindfulness gives you a chance to increase the quality of your relationships with your friends, family, and colleagues via the mechanisms described below. And by increasing the quality of those relationships, you increase your resilience to stress--and that of the other people in your life, because you give them someone to talk to as well!
A Present-Moment Awareness
When others are talking to you, how present are you? You may be with them physically, but are you with them mentally and emotionally?
I remember a manager I once had who was rarely focused when I spoke to him. At work parties, he would be looking over my shoulder. In meetings, he wouldn’t acknowledge what I said to him. And he seemed to have his favorites in on the team and others that he didn’t seem to care much about. This made him rather unpopular in the office, and his team felt unmotivated and frustrated as a result.
Being more present means you listen more effectively and the other person feels heard. And being heard is what others really want. You strengthen the relationship each time you are present.
Making Conscious Choices in the Heat of the Moment
"Autopilot is the big enemy of relationships" according to Marsha Lucas, author of
Rewire Your Brain for Love. The way we behave in relationships often flows from the way our brain was wired in early childhood. If you allow yourself to behave automatically in your relationships, you’re likely to repeat unhelpful patterns. Mindfulness rewires your brain--including parts of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and self-awareness. Through this rewiring, you’re less likely to react in knee-jerk fashion when faced with a difficult emotion. By being mindful, you can manage your emotions in the heat of the moment as your brain would be better wired to manage that. Imagine the amount of stress that can be reduced by being less reactive and to make a more controlled choice of words and action when upset by a partner, family member, or colleague.
Bringing a sense of kindness, compassion, or friendliness to your dealings with others is bound to increase the quality of your relationship. This will make you and the other person feel happier and more relaxed, reducing your levels of stress too. However, you need to balance kindness toward others with kindness toward yourself.
Last week a friend and colleague asked me to give a lecture on using mindfulness to overcome depression. Mindfulness is a wonderful, drug-free way of managing depression, and I was delighted to share my passion for this boon. However, I already had several other deadlines to meet that week. I had to be kind to myself on this occasion and say no to my friend. It wasn’t easy. I don’t like to say no to opportunities to speak about mindfulness, but if I didn’t say no, I’d be denying myself rest. And by resting I was giving myself time to reduce my own stress, thereby preparing to offer a better service to others in the future.
Consider your own life. Think about the last three things you said yes to. Were you being kind to yourself or to others? Then think about the last three things you said no to. Were you being kind to yourself or others? Record your answers in a print or electronic journal if you like.
What did you say yes to?
What did you say no to?
Ideally, you want to have a balance. If you’re always giving and too kind to others to the detriment of your own stress levels, think about saying no more often. And if you always look out for yourself and rarely care for others, consider reaching out and performing an act of kindness for someone else.
Letting go of judgment is a great way to improve your relationships and reduce your stress. The key, if you do need to judge, is to judge the action and not the person. I like to think of the essence of all humans as pure and complete--just as they were as babies. But, due to misunderstandings, past experiences, brain chemicals, or other influences, the other person doesn’t always behave reasonably or compassionately.
Here’s an example of how I’ve tried to apply this. I had a friendship for a couple of years that didn’t end well. Mike and I used to go to the movies or theater together, meet up every week, share ideas, and generally support each other. Mike and I were good friends. Then, one day, out of the blue, he accused me of not being a friend. He claimed I had ignored him at a party. Described how I had offered a new project to another friend before I offered it to him. He said he wanted to get things out in the open rather than hold them in. This was all out of the blue. A bit shocked, I accepted the criticisms and apologized. I had no idea he was having these feelings. Yet I still never heard from him again. No more emails, phone calls, or texts. He didn’t reply to anything. At first I felt sad and confused. Then I felt frustrated that he would do this to me. Eventually, however, I accepted the situation. The way I did this was by letting go of my judgment of him and also applying this personal principle of mine:
People are always doing the best they can, with the level of understanding and motivation they have, at any given moment.
There was no point in my judging Mike as wrong or bad. He did what he did because of what he thought of me. He didn’t want to discuss it further. By letting go of my judgment of him, I could relax and release the stress I had when I thought of him. I forgive him, because he did what he thought was right. That doesn’t mean what did was right or fair or even wise--but he did what he did for a reason.
Is there someone in your life that you feel you need to stop judging? Is there someone causing you stress just as you think about him or her? Would it be helpful if you forgave the person but not the action?
Write your thoughts or in your smartphone, tablet, or journal if you like. This is not easy and you may disagree with this approach to offenses you've suffered. But it’s certainly worth reflecting on.
Mindfulness Is Bigger than Meditation
There are only two ways to become more mindful:
Mindfulness meditation, a particular type of meditation, is where you make time to make your brain more mindful. Mindfulness meditation can be done for less than 5 minutes all the way up to about 45 minutes. The meditation involves practicing a particular technique, such as focusing on your breath, body, or sounds.
Mindfulness meditation creates positive changes in your brain. It actually rewires your brain so that you’re more happy, focused, clear-headed, and open-- in other words, more mindful! Meditation is the most powerful way to enhance your brain’s ability to be mindful.
Yoga, tai chi, or other mind-body disciplines that are done with a full mindful awareness can also be classified as a mindfulness meditation.
Everyday mindfulness involves living in a mindful way. Each time you do an activity, if you intentionally give the process your full attention with mindful attitudes like curiosity and openness (this can also be called detachment or stepping back), you also enhance your brain’s mindfulness.
Everyday mindfulness can be practiced at any time in your daily life. You can do mindful eating, mindful walking, and even simply mindful breathing while you’re waiting in line somewhere. These types of everyday mindfulness are described in full throughout the 8-week program.
This is why mindfulness is bigger than meditation. Meditation can be practiced only at particular times in the day, when you make time to meditate. But you have the choice to be mindful at any moment in the day by giving full attention to whatever you’re engaged in.
Ready to discover what’s so special about the eight-week mindfulness course, based on this article and its associated book? Then check out The Mindful Way Through Stress by Shamash Alidina. This article was extracted from Chapter 1 of the book.