Proven Ways Mindfulness Can Transform Your Life
Proven Ways Mindfulness Can Transform Your Life
WATCH THE BETTER MOVIE TRAILER:
Mindfulness meditation has become extremely popular these days, and for a good reason. Mindfulness offers numerous science-backed physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual benefits.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is a mental training practice that teaches awareness of your present moment experience. It involves focusing on the thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the present moment, non-judgmentally observing them as they arise and pass away.
Though a relatively new practice in the West, mindfulness has its roots in the teachings of the Buddha in ancient India around 2,500 years ago. His instructions can be found in the famed Satipatthana Sutta, “The Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness”, (1) and the stated goal is to end suffering.
Difference Between Regular Meditation and Mindfulness
Though similar in nature, meditation and mindfulness are not the same things.
Meditation is an ancient practice believed to have originated in India thousands of years ago. It is a skill that leads to a positive mindset and, like mindfulness, has been shown to offer a variety of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits.
In meditation, practitioners focus on one thing for a set time, which quiets the mind and brings peace. It is most often practiced formally, i.e., in a seated position for a specific period.
By contrast, mindfulness is a skill built as a result of meditation. It is most often practiced throughout the day as you’re living your life. With mindfulness, you experience what the Buddhists call “a beginner’s mind.” That is, you’re listening to someone with undivided attention as if for the first time, without adding any pre-conceived meanings or judgments to what they’re saying.
Or, when you’re taking a shower, you focus entirely on the present moment. You feel the sensation of the water spraying on your body. You listen to the sounds of the spray as if it’s the first time you’ve ever heard them. You smell the soap and relish the feeling of it on your body as you lather up.
Most people are seldom in the present moment. Instead, their minds are either ruminating on the past or anticipating the future. The present is hardly ever experienced. Thus, we aren’t living fully. Mindfulness brings peace because there is no stress in the present moment. Stress, anxiety, and other negative mental states come from thinking about past experiences or anticipating future developments.
How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work?
The actual reason mindfulness meditation provides so many health and wellness benefits has not been established. But clinical research studies suggest that mindfulness alters the production of hormones and other chemicals in the body, thus affecting mental and physical health. (2)
Benefits of Mindfulness Supported by Scientific Evidence
Here are just eight of the benefits of mindfulness meditation supported by scientific research studies.
Improves Brain Function
Perhaps one of the most noticeable benefits of meditation is its effect on the brain, as most regular practitioners say that they feel calmer and more focused after its practice. Studies suggest this is not just a subjective experience. Instead, brain scans have revealed actual changes in the brains of those who regularly practice mindfulness. (3)
For example, in a review of brain imaging studies involving 300 meditation practitioners, researchers observed several areas of the brain consistently altered with meditation, including ones important for memory, emotion regulation, communication between various parts of the brain, and self-awareness of thoughts and emotions. (4)
How long do you need to meditate to improve brain function? It varies, but one 16-week study showed that as little as 10 minutes a day might be enough to improve focus and concentration. (5)
Boosts Immune System
A robust immune system is essential to fight off bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens, and mindfulness may help.
Though studies on the immune effects of mindfulness meditation are limited, preliminary research suggests that it may increase antibodies to the influenza vaccine, (6) reduce specific markers of immunity, and increase cell-mediated immunity. (7)
Relieves Stress and Anxiety
Life is stressful.
Most people are constantly busy with long work hours, multiple family responsibilities, and various social commitments. As a result, they rarely relax, which can eventually affect their mental and physical health.
This is especially true for women, as they consistently report higher stress levels than their male counterparts. (7a)
Sadly, chronic stress may increase the risk for many health problems, including:
- Digestive issues
- Weight gain
- Memory impairment
It may even play a role in heart disease and cancer.
Here again, mindfulness may be able to help.
In a 2015 review of studies examining the possible stress-reducing effects of mindfulness on college students, researchers concluded that this form of meditation showed “promise in reducing stress and anxiety in college students”. (8)
Indeed, a 2016 study suggests that mindfulness works as well as taking a vacation in reducing stress and depression. That’s impressive, but here’s something even more astounding. Researchers found that the group who practiced mindfulness instead of taking a vacation in this study showed significant improvements in stress and anxiety ten months later. In contrast, those who took a vacation had returned to their “baseline” stress levels. (9)
Mindfulness may also help reduce anxiety. The difference between stress and anxiety is that stress is an immediate response to a perceived threat that eventually diminishes, and anxiety persists even after the stressor is gone.
It makes sense that mindful meditation can be an excellent treatment for anxiety. Those who suffer anxiety are often unable to control the flood of irrational thoughts going through their minds. Mindfulness training helps them distinguish between a problem-solving thought and one that is just a fearful one. They learn to recognize it as just a thought with no substance, which automatically reduces anxiety.
Major depression is one of the most common mental health issues in the United States.
In 2017, an estimated 17.3 million U.S. adults had at least one major depressive episode (10), and in 2018, women were almost twice as likely as men to experience depression. (11) Major depression can interfere with daily life, and if not treated, may lead to suicide.
Fortunately, mindful meditation is so successful at treating depression that experts created several mindfulness-based therapies. These include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy(ACT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) (12).
Relieves Chronic Pain
Though it’s not talked about often, chronic pain affects more people in the U.S. than heart disease, diabetes, and cancer combined. According to the National Institutes of Health, 25.3 million American adults experience pain daily. (13) Chronic pain is the main reason for the ongoing opioid crisis; as sufferers seek a way to ease their pain, they often become addicted to this powerful class of prescription pain medication.
Mindfulness has shown to be particularly effective in pain management. In a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers recruited 90 chronic pain patients and trained them in a 10-week Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program. The results?
“Statistically significant reductions were observed in measures of present-moment pain, negative body image, inhibition of activity by pain, symptoms, mood disturbance, and psychological symptomatology, including anxiety and depression. Pain-related drug utilization decreased, and activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased.” (14)
Another group of chronic pain patients receiving traditional treatments, i.e., no mindfulness training, did not show significant improvement in their pain.
Many people also have problems with sleep. For example, though experts recommend that most adults get a minimum of 7-8 uninterrupted hours of sleep every night, statistics show that 35.2% of adults in the U.S. regularly get less than 7 hours. (15) Sleep is crucial for healthy brain function. It impacts the communication between neurons (nerve cells) in the brain, among other functions.
Though anyone can suffer from sleep disturbances, it is most prevalent among older adults, the group least likely to seek treatment for sleep disorders. Yet, there is strong scientific evidence that mindfulness may promote restful sleep, especially in older people.
For example, in a study involving a group of older adults (mean age, 66.3 years) with moderate sleep disturbances, half received a mindful awareness practices intervention, and the other half received a sleep hygiene education intervention. For 6-weeks, participants received their assigned interventions for 2-hours per week. They also were given homework to complete.
At the end of the study, researchers found that the mindful awareness practices group showed significant improvement “on secondary health outcomes of insomnia symptoms, depression symptoms, fatigue interference, and fatigue severity” compared to the sleep hygiene education group. (16)
But even if you don’t suffer from a sleep disorder, practicing mindfulness may help you drift off to sleep quickly.
Reduces Blood Pressure
In today’s busy, stress-filled society, high blood pressure (hypertension) is a common issue for many people. More than 47% of U.S. adults have hypertension, (17) which increases heart disease and stroke risk.
Mindfulness is so successful at lowering blood pressure that researchers reported in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine that MBSR – a practice that includes meditation, body awareness, and some gentle yoga — “may be an appropriate complementary treatment” for patients who would rather use lifestyle modifications and stress-management techniques to manage hypertension. (18)
Researchers recruited 56 adults whose blood pressure was high but not high enough to take medication for this study. The participants practiced MBSR for eight weeks with a skilled practitioner and on their own.
The participants lowered their blood pressure as much as modified diet, exercise, and other alternative treatments. Amazingly, the results of MBSR appeared to be just slightly less effective than blood pressure medicines.
Defends Against Age-Related Memory Loss
Research suggests that meditation, in general, may help improve memory and cognition as we age. This is good news because cases of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are steadily rising. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, afflicts more than 6 million Americans. Experts expect this number to rise to nearly 13 million by 2050. (19)
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is often an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease. Fortunately, a recent study suggests that mindfulness meditation may help. In this small study, researchers recruited 14 men and women ages 55 to 90 with MCI and instructed 9 of them to practice mindfulness meditation for eight weeks. Those who completed the course showed improved cognitive function, which may decrease their chances of developing Alzheimer’s. (20)
As this was a small study, more research needs to be done. But the results indeed appear to be promising for those who suffer from age-related cognitive decline.
How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation
You can practice mindfulness anywhere. You don’t have to have any props or even a quiet space. All you need to do is bring your full attention to the present moment with all your senses. What are you seeing, smelling? How does it feel or taste? Observe your thoughts as they come and go, without attaching to any of them.
At first, you’ll be able to practice mindfulness just a few minutes at a time, but gradually you’ll be able to extend your sessions. Eventually, you may find yourself living in the present moment most of the time. It is then that you’ll experience the pure bliss that will change your life.
1- Bodhi B. The Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Lion’s Roar. Jun 1, 2021. Accessed Aug 20, 2021. https://www.lionsroar.com/the-buddhas-four-foundations-of-mindfulness/#:~:text=The%20Buddha%E2%80%99s%20Four%20Foundations%20of%20Mindfulness%201%20First,…%204%20Fourth%20Foundation%3A%20Contemplation%20of%20Dhammas.%20
2- Haley A. How Does Mindfulness Work? The University of Minnesota. Accessed Aug 21, 2021. https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-mindfulness-work
3- Powell A. Researchers study how it seems to change the brain in depressed patients. The Harvard Gazette. Apr 9, 2018. Accessed Aug 20, 2021. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/harvard-researchers-study-how-mindfulness-may-change-the-brain-in-depressed-patients/
4- Fox KC, Nijeboer S, Dixon ML, Floman JL, Ellamil M, Rumak SP, Sedlmeier P, Christoff K. Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2014 Jun;43:48-73. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.03.016. Epub 2014 Apr 3. PMID: 24705269.
5- National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. The Benefits of Meditation: Improving Focus and Concentration with Mindfulness Meditation. Accessed Aug 21, 2021.
6- Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003 Jul-Aug;65(4):564-70. DOI: 10.1097/01.psy.0000077505.67574.e3. PMID: 12883106.
7- Black DS, Slavich GM. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Jun;1373(1):13-24. DOI: 10.1111/nyas.12998. Epub 2016 Jan 21. PMID: 26799456; PMCID: PMC4940234.
7a- American Psychological Association. Gender and Stress. 2012. Accessed Sep 2, 2021. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2010/gender-stress
8- Bamber MD, Schneider JK. Mindfulness-based meditation to decrease stress and anxiety in college students: A narrative synthesis of the research. Educational Research Review, Volume 18, 2016, Pages 1-32, ISSN 1747-938X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2015.12.004. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1747938X15000676)
9- Tello M. Regular meditation more beneficial than vacation. Harvard Health Blog. Oct 27, 2016. Accessed Aug 21, 2021. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/relaxation-benefits-meditation-stronger-relaxation-benefits-taking-vacation-2016102710532
10- National Institute of Mental Health. Major Depression. NIH. Accessed Aug 21, 2021. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression
11- Brody DJ, Pratt LA, Hughes JP. Prevalence of Depression Among Adults Aged 20 and Over: United States, 2013–2016. Feb 2018. Accessed Aug 21, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db303.htm#:~:text=Overall%2C%20women%20%2810.4%25%29%20were%20almost%20twice%20as%20likely,not%20differ%20statistically%20across%20age%20groups.%20Figure%201.
12- Hofmann SG, Gómez AF. Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Anxiety and Depression. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2017;40(4):739-749. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2017.08.008
13- Pain Doctor. Chronic Pain Statistics. Accessed Aug 21, 2021. https://paindoctor.com/resources/chronic-pain-statistics/#:~:text=Chronic%20pain%20statistics%20in%20the%20U.S.%201%20Pain,to%20100%20million%2C%20U.S.%20…%20More%20items…%20
14- Kabat-Zinn J, Lipworth L, Burney R. The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. J Behav Med. 1985 Jun;8(2):163-90. DOI: 10.1007/BF00845519. PMID: 3897551.
15- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data and Statistics Short Sleep Duration Among US Adults. Page last reviewed: May 2, 2017. Accessed Aug 21, 2021. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep
16- Black DS, O’Reilly GA, Olmstead R, Breen EC, Irwin MR. Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Apr;175(4):494-501. DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8081. PMID: 25686304; PMCID: PMC4407465.
17- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hypertension Cascade: Hypertension Prevalence, Treatment and Control Estimates Among US Adults Aged 18 Years and Older Applying the Criteria From the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association’s 2017 Hypertension Guideline—NHANES 2015–2018. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2021.
18- Kent State University. Meditation Effective in Reducing Blood Pressure. Aug 27, 2021. https://www.kent.edu/research/meditation-effective-reducing-blood-pressure#:~:text=Meditation%20Effective%20in%20Reducing%20Blood%20Pressure%20Two%20researchers,nearly%2060%20million%20adults%20in%20the%20United%20States.
19- Alzheimer’s Association. Facts and Figures. Accessed Aug 27, 2021. https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/facts-figures
20- Atrium Health Lake Forest Wake Forest Baptist. Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment Can Learn – and Benefit from – Mindfulness Meditation. News Release. Aug 15, 2019. Accessed Aug 27, 2021. https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2019/08/Adults-with-Mild-Cognitive-Impairment-Can-Learn-and-Benefit-from-Mindfulness-Meditation