How Mindfulness can improve your life
Mindfulness is a quality of human consciousness characterized by an accepting awareness of and enhanced attention to the constant stream of lived experience. Being mindful increases engagement with the present moment and allows for a clearer understanding of how thoughts and emotions can impact our health and quality of life.
Mindfulness can be cultivated through meditation practice, which is very popular in Southeast Asia and originates from early Buddhist teachings dating back some 2,500 years. It has become now common practice around the world and has been formalized in programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) as well as other programs. Although mindfulness is an inherent human capacity that has been examined introspectively for millennia, scientific interest in mindfulness is burgeoning in the fields of medicine, psychology, social work, and business, as well as other areas.
Some studies have shown that mindfulness meditation is effective in reducing a variety of chronic pain conditions, skin disease, and stress-related health conditions. In 2007, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, found the first neural evidence for why this ability to live in the present moment, without distraction, seems to produce a variety of health benefits. They reveal why verbalizing our feelings makes our sadness, anger and pain less intense.
When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect the body in times of danger. Scientists see a robust amygdala response even when they show such emotional photographs subliminally, so fast a person can’t even see them.
But does seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angry face change our brain response? The answer is yes, according to Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience.
The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region is located behind the forehead and eyes and has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences.
“One way to practice mindfulness meditation and pay attention to present-moment experiences is to label your emotions by saying, for example, ‘I’m feeling angry right now’ or ‘I’m feeling a lot of stress right now’ or ‘this is joy’ or whatever the emotion is,” said Creswell, lead author of the study, which will be featured in an upcoming issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, a leading international medical journal for health psychology research.
Creswell said Lieberman has now shown in a series of studies that simply labeling emotions turns down the amygdala alarm center response in the brain that triggers negative feelings.
But being mindful is not only about recognizing and labeling your emotions. It is also important to accept that the emotion is there. Don’t try to pretend that you haven’t lost your calmness and that you are acting with reason. Just step back for a moment and investigate deeply the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that are occuring to you. Try observing what areas of your body feel tense, or burning, or warm, or relaxed. Find where is the core of the emotion located exactly, and what does a sustained mindful awareness have on the physical aspect of your experience.
Keep in mind that an emotion is a temporary flux. They come and go like waves in the ocean. Anger comes and goes. But you don’t come and go – you’re always there. And your mind has the power not to change the situation, but to decide not to be affected by it.
Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).
The benefits of managing to control one’s emotions are self evident. But there are also other positive consequences of mindful behavior. For instance, if we pay attention as we eat, we are likely to eat less and to better digest what we eat.
Susan Albers, author of Eating Mindfully, suggests that in our fast-paced world, attentiveness to the things you “have to do takes on a greater priority than what is going on internally.” “Slowing down” she says, “is a foreign concept to busy individuals. Doing several things simultaneously is considered a more efficient way of doing things.” We may not even care that multi-tasking registers as stress in the mind and therefore triggers a stress response in the body.
But when we eat while under stress or when experiencing busyness or unpleasant emotions, it affects not only what we eat, but how we digest what we eat.
Stress Impacts our Digestion
When the body is in the midst of fighting or fleeing, it gives very little priority to digestion. In fact, it essentially puts the digestive system on hold. Because of that, fewer digestive enzymes are released and less hydrochloric acid is secreted to aid in the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Without stomach acid, many vitamins and minerals can’t be broken down, liberated, or absorbed.
During the stress response, the cells’ ability to metabolize fatty acids is also impaired. Instead, the body tends to break down muscle and replace it with stored fat and excess fluid. Over time, this can cause weight gain.
In addition, during the stress response, excess glucose is released into the blood stream to provide additional energy. The pancreas then releases additional insulin to deliver the excess glucose. Some researchers believe this can create cravings for foods that are high in sugar.
You might think that the stress response doesn’t really apply because you don’t eat much when you are stressed. But distraction can act just like stress in terms of the impact on your digestive system. An often-cited 1987 study, published in the journal Gastroenterology, illustrates how metabolism and digestion are altered under perceived distraction and stimuli.
In this study, participants consumed a mineral drink while they were in a relaxed state. Researchers found that participants absorbed 100 percent of the drink’s nutrients in this relaxed state. Then the participants were asked to concentrate as two different people spoke to them simultaneously. In one ear, someone spoke about intergalactic space travel, while in the other ear, someone spoke about financial planning. When the subjects were exposed to this listening conflict and given the same mineral mix, they showed a significant reduction in assimilation that lasted up to an hour afterward.
The simple act of attending to two stimuli at once dramatically altered their metabolism, even though we might not normally consider this to be very stressful. Consider that people often read the newspaper, watch TV, or drive a car while eating. These distracting stimuli can to some degree impair the ability to digest fully.
How can I eat mindfully?
In Eating Mindfully, Susan Albers describes it thus:
“Eating a mindful meal means completely focusing your mind on the ‘process’ of eating. You take it moment by moment and focus on the here and now. You begin by looking at the food, noting the different colors and shapes. You really see what is in front of you. You also become aware of the manner in which you reach for the spoon and fork. Food doesn’t automatically end up in your mouth. Your entire body is involved in getting it there… from ingredients to atmosphere, whether appealing or appalling, both the psychological mood and the physical accessories that surround you when you eat may influence the way in which you metabolize food and in turn your health and wellbeing.”
Mindful eating is the full experience of our meal. The Enlightened Diet authors Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz describe mindful eating as being present, moment-by-moment for each sensation that happens during eating, such as chewing, tasting, and swallowing. “When you take time to experience your food through all your senses; taste (flavor), smell (aroma), sight (presentation) sound (of surroundings), and touch (movement of utensils and the feel of the food),” they suggest, “you are likely to be truly nourished.”
The Science of Mindfulness
In 2008, the Oxford Mindfulness Centre was founded within Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry, in order to carry out ground-breaking clinical and neuroscience research on mindfulness. Some of its neuroscientific findings include:
- changes in those areas of the brain associated with decision-making, attention and empathy in people who regularly practice Mindfulness meditation;
- that meditation increases the area of the brain linked to regulating emotion, and that it improves people’s attention, job performance, productivity and satisfaction;
- that meditation increases blood flow, reduces blood pressure, and protects people at risk of developing hypertension: it also reduces the risk and severity of cardiovascular disease, and the risk of dying from it.
and they also found that people who have learned mindfulness…
- experience long-lasting physical and psychological stress reduction;
- discover positive changes in well-being;
- are less likely to get stuck in depression and exhaustion, and are better able to control addictive behaviour.
Whether you’re new to mindfulness practice or not, this collection of articles is a great foundation for building a daily practice:
Mindfulness: The Basics
Meditation: Getting Started
So you want to start practicing meditation, but need to know the very basics—like how to sit. Mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn offers helpful tips for beginners.
Five Steps to Mindfulness
“Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” Mindfulness can transform your life. Meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches five exercises to help you live with joy.
Body and Mind Integration
Yoga practice and meditation work extremely well together, say Cyndi Lee and David Nichtern. They show us how.
Is it working?
So you’re practicing mindfulness, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel like it’s working. That’s natural. In order to stay on track, says Donald Altman, it’s important to stop now and then and recalibrate your thinking. Here’s how.
Setting up a Mindfulness Meditation Group
Betsy Nelson on how she did it, why it helps, and how you can too.