WHAT THE HECK IS MINDFULNESS, ANYWAY?
If you pay attention to your health and well-being, you have undoubtedly heard of the term “mindfulness.” It’s the health and well-being buzzword of the day. You might have even made it one of your New Year’s Resolutions or part of your practice to reset your mind and body through mental exercises or a detox or cleanse program, like our Healthy Foundation Reset. But what the heck is mindfulness anyway? Don’t we naturally practice it anyway? What’s the big deal? These questions led us to our own exploration of “mindfulness” including easy ways to turn mindfulness from a buzzword into a benefit. Here is what we found:
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS AND WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT?
We turned to Dr. Nada Milosavljevic, a double board-certified physician in Integrative Medicine and Psychiatry and author of Holistic Health for Adolescents, for the definition of “mindfulness.” According to Dr. Milosavljevic, mindfulness is a “way to engage in receptive and open-minded practices in the present, that nurture lack of bias, a sense of calm, and seeing things in a fresh way. It promotes a feeling of being centered and aware.” With the advances of neuroimaging, scientists have been able to show how practicing mindfulness can actually alleviate stress and anxiety; help create focus, self-discipline, empathy and concentration; make you stronger against pain; and even slow down aging.
HOW IS MINDFULNESS PRACTICED IN THE REAL WORLD?
If mindfulness happens whenever we pay attention on purpose in a way that is non-judgmental and in the present moment, how do we do practice it in today’s world? Unfortunately, in our fast-paced, highly technological, screen-infested world, the simple act of mindfulness may not be so simple at all. We live in a world that many would argue promotes the opposite of mindfulness – rather, it promotes the state of being mindless, where we do not pay attention to details, do not give our present moment its full attention and quickly move from one task, conversation, text message, or moment to the next. Thus, the most obvious ways to get back to being mindful are through practices like meditation and yoga, which teach us to detach from our smart phones and outer and inner voices and repetitive thoughts and to attain a more whole sense of self. Dr. Milosavljevic explains that “these practices can cultivate mindfulness and ease distracted and automated negative behavior. They help reduce stress and improve focus.” And you don’t have to mediate for hours at a time. Try ten (10) minutes a day for 21 days. Check out this list of 10-minute meditations from the Chopra center here.
In case yoga and meditation are not your thing, it is important to know that we can practice mindfulness at all times and in the most informal of settings. I tried this yesterday. I put down my smart phone and took awareness of the sunset after a long rain. Rather than snapping a photo of the sunset on my phone to instantly share with all of my friends, I actually kept my phone in my purse, and stopped and looked at the sunset, felt the temperature, noticed the color of the sun, the movement in the air, and how it all made me feel. Then, rather than immediately digitally sharing a photo with all of my friends and moving on to my next task, I kept the memory and the way it made me feel to myself and verbally expressed the beauty of it with my family later that evening.
Coming from that experience, made us all realize that mindfulness can be easily incorporated into our busy lives if we simply pay attention to mindful cues in our own lives and remember when we see them to stop for just a second, pay attention, take a deep breath, notice the moment, and determine if we are being mindful or mindless. Cues to use could include taking your initial step outside for the day, being in a high stress conversation (do you react or do you pause and respond?), stopping at a stop sign before making a turn, showering (especially if you are a mind wanderer when you shower), settling into bed for the evening, watching your children or your dogs play, or even going into your own refrigerator (especially for those of us who tend to be mindless eaters). These are all great opportunities to practice mindfulness!
HOW DOES MINDFULNESS DO ALL THE THINGS SCIENTISTS SAY IT DOES?
A large number of studies indicate that mindfulness-based practices can help regulate mood, lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, boost the immune system, and assist the body in optimal metabolic processes. Further research has also supported its use in relapse prevention for substance abuse, as mindfulness techniques can help reduce cravings. Researchers give several reasons for these results, including that people who regularly practice mindfulness (and reduce stress hormones on the brain and body) have more activity of the enzyme telomerase than do those that do not practice any form of mindfulness. Telomerase is responsible for repairing telomeres, the structures located in the end of chromosomes which prevent them from unraveling, and thus, promote cell copying. A healthy level of telomerase has been linked to reversed signs of aging, increased brain size, and psychological well-being. Additional studies indicate that long-term mindfulness practices can actually increase the gray matter concentration in the areas of the brain involved in learning and memory, regulation of emotions, sense of self, and perspective.
Whether or not you are meditating or taking a yoga class, we encourage our community to practice mindfulness every day. Start slowly and remember you are building a practice, and that takes time. But it seems worth the effort and a win-win for all. Not only will those with whom we interact benefit, but so will we in some pretty potentially amazing physical and psychological ways.
*Relevant research to support the opinions listed:
- Research and Practical Guide: Holistic Health for Adolescents: How Yoga, Aromatherapy, Teas and More Can Help You Get and Stay Well; Milosavljevic, N. W.W. Norton Publishing (2016).
- Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for salutary effects. International Journal for the advancement of psychological inquiry, Brown and Creswell (2007).
- Time: Explaining Why Meditators Live Longer, Maia Szalavitz, Dec. 23, 2010.
- LiveandDare.com: Scientific Benefits of Meditation – 76 Things You Might Be Missing Out On?, Giovanni