What is Mindfulness And How Can It Help Your Health and Wellness

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The practice of mindfulness has been associated with benefits that range from stress reduction to relieving back pain to calming the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It can also make everyday moments richer, but if you’ve never tried to be mindful, you might be unsure exactly what it is or how to try it.

Mindfulness is quite simple, according to Jane Ehrman, who teaches mind-body tools and methods at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “It’s the practice of paying attention to just one thing; it’s being in the moment and aware of what you’re doing,” she says. “So, if you’re cutting a carrot, you’re paying attention to cutting the carrot. You’re not in your head thinking about six other things you need to do,” she says.

“When you’re being mindful, you’re aware of your surroundings and also able to respond to what’s happening. In mindfulness, you’re using your senses, being present, and not rehashing things that have already happened,” she says.

When you’re mindful and present, you can enjoy each moment more, because you’re fully alive. Think about eating your favorite ice cream. When you’re practicing mindfulness, you can enjoy the flavor, feel how cold it is, and experience the texture and taste in your mouth and how good it feels when you swallow it.

Contrary to what many people think, mindfulness isn’t about “shutting your mind off,” Only dead people’s minds are shut off; when you’re alive, your mind is always going. Mindfulness is about practicing paying attention to one thing, and so as soon as your attention wanders, bring it back. When you do that, you’re strengthening your ability to focus and concentrate better and longer.

A Brief History of Mindfulness – Mindfulness began in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions hundreds of years ago. Although there isn’t complete agreement among scholars, modern-day mindfulness as it’s practiced in the United States owes many of its principals and insights to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a meditation teacher and mind-body medicine researcher who was born in New York City in 1944.

After encountering a Zen missionary while he was in college, Kabat-Zinn went on to study meditation with Buddhist teachers including Philip Kapleau, Thích Nhat Hanh, and Seung Sahn before eventually founding the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

According to Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living, mindfulness is a moment-to-moment awareness and is cultivated by intentionally paying attention to the present moment with a nonjudging and nonstriving attitude of acceptance. Observing one’s own thoughts and feelings in this way can highlight the subjectivity and transient nature of them.

Everyday Ways to Practice Mindfulness – The practice of mindfulness can be religious or secular. One way is a secular approach of being just present with your breath and how it feels as you breathe in and breathe out. Experience how the air feels as your chest expands and contracts. Notice how your body feels sitting in the chair without judging it or trying to change it.

A simple way to practice mindfulness during your day is when you go on a walk. While you’re walking, instead of thinking about all kinds of stuff you did or need to do, pay attention to how the air feels as it brushes past your skin. Notice trees and your surroundings. Notice how your body feels as you breathe air in and what’s happening in your body as you take each step.

You can practice mindfulness at work, too. “Before a meeting, take a minute to just breathe in and out, and let your stress go. By doing that, you’re centering yourself and getting oxygen to your brain and body, which can allow you to be more present at the meeting.

Benefits of Mindfulness for Your Body and Health – Practicing mindfulness doesn’t just help you deepen your experience of everyday moments... it’s associated with health benefits for both the body and mind.

Anxiety Reduction – Mindfulness can help when you’re in your head and scaring the daylights out of yourself worrying about something. By using mindfulness techniques, you can be more intentional about what you’re choosing to pay attention to or think about. It can reduce anxiety. Part of anxiety is a story that you’re telling yourself in your head that’s usually not the truth. It’s distorted and often very negative. 

Research published in February 2014 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry has shown that mindfulness-based stress reduction programs can reduce symptoms such as chronic worrying, poor sleep, and irritability in generalized anxiety disorder.

Pain Management – It may seem counterintuitive to think that mindfulness could help with pain, but the practice can help you work through it. When you’re in chronic pain and then all of a sudden, the pain gets worse, you’re not mindful or in the moment. Instead, you’re noticing that it’s getting worse. You go up into your head and you might start thinking, ‘How much worse can it get?’ ‘I wonder how long it will last?’ or ‘Why is it hurting like that?’. You’re no longer present to the pain, because you’re in your head already playing it out.”

In mindfulness, when you are fully present for the pain you can breathe into it. As you breathe and as you exhale, you can start to settle and soften the areas around the hurt, and that actually reduces some of the pain. It brings you to a place where you can respond to those questions running through your head.

You can say to yourself, ‘I’m just going to stay with this and breathe with it.’ Imagine breathing in a calm energy and on the exhale, you’re imagining letting that tension go. Staying present with that discomfort allows you to work with and through the pain. 

Different mindfulness techniques are used to manage pain in many chronic conditions including fibromyalgia, back pain, arthritis, headache, and irritable bowel syndrome, according to an article published in September 2016 in Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

Improved Disease Management – Chronic stress can impact the way the body regulates the inflammatory response, which is thought to promote the progression of some chronic diseases, per past research. Research, including a study published in 2014 in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, has found links between stress and autoimmune disease, migraine, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

Practicing mindfulness is one way to reduce stress, according to Ehrman. “When you’re stressed out, your immune system is like, ‘What’s going on here? Is there an invader around here?’” she says.

Mindfulness can help rebalance the immune system. When your brain is in a state of peace and calm, your cells and tissues can repair themselves, and your body heals faster. There have been several studies to support this premise, including one in which patients undergoing heart surgery who elected to do guided imagery had a shorter length of stay and needed fewer pain medications, she says.

If you would like to learn and/or practice Mindfulness, Join the PRO Mindfulness Focused Group, facilitated by Roger Moore, PALM DESERT HYPNOSIS, a Medical Hypnotherapist who has been a member of the Wellness Village since September 2019.

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Updated: August 16, 2017