Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation - Fantasy or Fact?
"We have only now, only this single eternal moment opening and unfolding before us, day and night" ~ Jack Kornfield
So we all know that stress is bad for us and that research now shows strong links between chronic physical and emotional stress and poor health. You can read more about this in Chronic Stress and your Health
But what can we do about it?
The obvious thing is to avoid or get rid of whatever is stressing us out. Simple, right?
While that might work for the irritating person on the bus, many things aren't so easy to ditch. Most of us can't just quit our jobs or leave our families (one of the main causes of stress!) - and wouldn't want to either. And we can't change things that have happened to us in the past.
What we can do is change the way we react to the stress - both physically, mentally and emotionally.
There are lots of tools we can use to do this - one that has risen in popularity over the last few years is Mindfulness Meditation.
There always tends to be some scepticism around more traditional healing techniques as they are so far removed from western medical practices. Many people discount meditation as hippy nonsense, on a parr with tree hugging, the mere suggestion of trying a bit of meditation being met with an obligatory eye roll.
In spite of this, Mindfulness Meditation is one of the key tools I introduce clients to first. Here's why...
Mindfulness Reduces Stress - how does it work?
Stress, in this context, is any negative emotion that will trigger a Fight or Flight stress response, such as anger, fear, shame, guilt, sadness etc. Once this stress response is triggered, a chemical chain reaction is set off in our bodies (as described in my previous blog Chronic Stress and your Health) that leads to all sorts of problems if it's kept firing for an extended time. Poor sleep, recurrent infections, pain, skin problems, gut problems, fatigue, hormone imbalances...
Mindfulness has been shown to help normalise our stress hormones [1, 2] and improve the function of our Parasympathetic Nervous System [3, 4, 5, 6] that is responsible for calming our body down after a stressful event.
Mindfulness teaches you to stop just reacting to your life but to stop, reflect and respond appropriately instead. I find that Mindfulness can give someone a sense of control over their bodies and health which also help reduce a person's stress reaction.
Mindfulness is therefore able to slow, or even stop, the Fight or Flight reaction.
If we can lower our baseline stress reaction, then our bodies are able to function the way they are meant to.
Mindfulness can be difficult for many people as they are simply not used to having to listen to their thoughts. They spend their lives avoiding them by keeping busy with work, family, social media. When meditating, there's no longer anywhere to hide. You may be surprised at which thoughts keep on popping up, you may be distressed by them initially. However, by just watching them mindfully instead of engaging with them as usual, you can increase your awareness of your thoughts, gain a better understanding of what's bothering you and deal with them afterwards if necessary.
Improved Self Esteem
I also find that giving someone permission to spend time doing mindfulness can be very liberating. Often people don't spend any time on themselves and feel guilty about doing so. Putting 10 minutes or so aside each day to spend on you starts to build feelings of self-worth and a more balanced out-look on life.
Health Benefits of Mindfulness - how can Mindfulness help you?
People who practice Mindfulness find:
- they are able to sleep better which has whole host of benefits 
- they feel more positive and less depressed [8,9 10,11]
- their pain reduces 
- their fatigue reduces 
- their brain fog clears and they can concentrate better 
- their skin condition clears 
- their guts settle down 
- their immune system works better [17, 18]
I'd love to say that Mindfulness cures all, but unfortunately it's not quite so simple. However, mindfulness is one of many tools that can work together to bring about recovery, so it's a great place to start!
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an ancient practice and means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally.
Mindfulness is simply a practical way to notice thoughts, physical sensations, sights, sounds smells - anything we might not normally notice - without judgement.
Whilst the actual skills are simple, it is very different to how our minds normally behave. Usually we find we have thoughts whizzing round about the future or the past - thinking about what we need to do, or going over what we have done.
Research tells us that our minds wander at least 50% of the time. While it's OK for our minds to wander, it's helpful to be able to notice e.g. when they've wandered onto things that aren't helpful, if we are aware then we we can choose where we put our focus, even for a short time.
People often struggle to start with but, like anything else, it gets easier with practice.
Mindfulness Meditation - how to do it
There are lots of different ways to be mindful, none are more 'correct' than any other. I advise to practice every day if possible.
Often people will say they don't have time to do any mindfulness - these are usually the people who really need it! Just 5 minutes a day can start to make a difference and I'm pretty sure you wouldn't even miss the time.
Instead of going straight to your phone while you're waiting for the kettle to boil/ sitting on the bus/ waiting for the kids to come out of school, you could do a mini-mindfulness session.
A good place to start is with sensory mindfulness. I like to do this outside but you can do it inside just as well.
- Take a few deep breaths and close your eyes.
- Notice any sounds you can hear and focus on these for a few moments.
- Notice any sensations you can feel - clothing, wind, feelings inside your body, and focus on these for a few moments.
- Notice any smells and focus on these for a few moments.
- Open your eyes and notice what you can see - colours, textures, shapes, and focus on these for a few moments.
- When thoughts or emotions pop up, simply allow them to come and go without getting caught up in them and refocus on the sensory world you are in.
Focusing on your breathing is a good way to be mindful. The aim is to develop a calm, non-judging awareness, allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go without getting caught up in them. This creates calmness and acceptance.
- Sit comfortably with your eyes closed and your spine reasonably straight.
- Direct your attention to your breathing. Feel the air passing through your nose and into your body. Feel your chest and abdomen filling with air and then the air gently leaving your body allowing your chest to fall.
- When thoughts, emotions, physical feelings or external sounds occur, simply accept them, giving them space to come and go without judging or getting involved in them.
- When you notice your attention has drifted off or you have become caught up in thoughts or feelings, simply note that the attention has drifted and then gently bring the attention back to your breathing.
It's natural for thoughts to arise and for your attention to follow them and that's fine. No matter how many times this happens, just keep bringing your attention back to your breathing.
If you're feeling you don't have time to practice Mindfulness, one way round it is to do activities mindfully. This is where you carry out a task mindfully, taking notice of every detail, every movement and sensation, being fully present in the moment without judging it. Ideas for this could be:
- drinking a cup of tea or coffee
- having a shower or a bath
- washing the dishes
- going for a walk
- eating your lunch
- having a cuddle
If you need a helping hand to get you started, there are a range of apps and guided meditations online that many people find really helpful.
These are some of my favourites:
So what are you waiting for? You've really got nothing to lose - oh, except your stress, anxiety, pain, anger, sleepless nights, bad guts, low mood, arguments, poor skin....
Connecting Mind and Body for Health
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