Mindfulness research has been dominating the news and science journals for over a decade. So, what exactly is mindfulness? Is it some advanced Jedi skill that only Yoda himself or the fully actualized Avatar can practice? Not at all.
Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment without judgment. We spend much of our time worrying about the future or regretting the past. Dreading the future often creates anxiety, worry, and even panic attacks, whereas focusing on past regrets can lead to depression or lack of motivation. Rarely do we focus on the present moment. However, most of the things we experience happen in real time, in the present. Mindfulness refers to noticing what you’re feeling, thinking, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, and seeing in the present moment. For example, focusing on the taste of the morning coffee or listening to the music on the radio are all examples of mindfulness.
Meditation is another example of mindfulness. Most people believe that meditation means sitting in a lotus position and clearing one’s mind of all thoughts. That’s not accurate. Meditation can be done in any position, preferably one where your body feels most supported but allowing you to stay alert and focused.
Meditation does not require that we clear our mind of all thoughts. In fact, it’s not possible to do that for a long time anyway. Meditation usually refers to focusing on some sensation, word/phrase (such as loving kindness meditation), or activity, including paying attention to our breathing (for example with a MyCalmBeat app), focusing on a specific guided visualization, or progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and relaxing each muscle of the body. The video below is an example of progressive muscle relaxation. Most people find it relaxing and helpful, however, if you have an injury, you should ask your doctor before participating in this meditation.
Because mindfulness allows for balancing out the nervous system, most people who frequently practice mindfulness find that it helps them reduce anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and improve overall physical and emotional health. When we are under stress our body goes into a fight-or-flight mode, where our body physically prepares us to fight or run away from a stressful situation. When this happens, our adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, along with other stress hormones. Adrenaline causes our heart to speed up, our breathing becomes shallow, we might start to sweat, and our blood pressure goes up.
In the short term the fight-or-flight response can actually be helpful. For example, if a car is coming right at us, it’s helpful to react quickly and jump out of the way. However, when we are under chronic stress, our immune system can be weakened, we might be more likely to get sick and are more prone to anxiety or panic attacks. In addition, chronic stress makes the pain receptors in our brain more sensitive to pain, so if you have chronic pain, such as back pain, joint pain, or migraines, stress can greatly increase your pain.
On the other hand, practicing mindfulness can reduce chronic pain, anxiety, depression, seizures, and improve our health, and possibly even extend our life. A recent finding published in Cancer, a scientific journal, suggests that mindfulness practice might change our DNA. In their study, Dr. Linda Carlson and her colleauges compared telomere length of women with breast cancer who either received mindfulness training or did not. Telomeres are a part of the DNA, the very ends of the chromosomes. The length of the telomeres is related to longer life and better health. As we get older, our telomeres naturally get shorter. However, it seems that certain life conditions can decrease our telomere length more than it naturally would, putting us at a higher risk for certain illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, and reducing our lifespan. The results of the study showed that women with breast cancer, who received mindfulness training, maintained their telomere length, whereas those women who did not receive any training demonstrated shorter telomere length, potentially putting them in higher risk of illness. These results suggest that mindfulness and stress reduction can make us healthier and potentially extend our life.
How much should you practice?
The great thing about mindfulness is that you can’t overdose on it. Most people tend to be quite busy and do not have a lot of time to dedicate to practicing mindfulness, so the recommended time is usually somewhere around 20 minutes per day. This may seem like a lot and if you would like to try practicing mindfulness but do not have that amount of time in your day, do what you can. Do 10 minutes, if you can’t do 10, do 5, or even 1 minute. Anything is better than nothing.
Remember that just like learning any other new skill, mindfulness might not be easy. You might find yourself distracted or even overwhelmed. This doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong. It’s natural to struggle a bit at first, or even after years of practice. You might also find yourself feeling more relaxed, less stressed out, less overwhelmed, and overall more healthy and grounded.
While losing weight and quitting smoking are still among the top two New Year’s resolutions that people set out for themselves, practicing mindfulness is a close runner-up. Now that people are discovering the amazing benefits of mindfulness, more people are trying it. There are plenty of resources available, including books, classes, and free online videos. So, if you haven’t practiced mindfulness yet, give it a shot in 2015. After all, 10 minutes of mindfulness/day might help to keep a doctor away.
Dr. Janina Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, and a full time geek. She uses Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and trauma at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management and Sharp Memorial Hospital. Dr. Scarlet is also a professor at Alliant International University, San Diego. If you have any questions about this article and would like to contact Dr. Scarlet, you can contact her via Twitter @shadowquill, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Shadow.Scarletl, or via her website at www.superhero-therapy.com