When many of us think of the concept of health and wellness, the first two terms that come to mind are nutrition and physical activity. While these areas of health are important to address for our optimal well-being, there are some other facets of health that often fall to the wayside. Mindfulness, just like diet and exercise, is a crucial piece in the complex puzzle of health.
What is Mindfulness?
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the found of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which he launched at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, mindfulness means “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.”
Mindfulness is a form of meditation where we are always engaged in the activity at hand. It is the opposite of dwelling in the past and also anxiously anticipating future events. Seems simple, right? Mindfulness, like any other skill, is something that must be practiced in order to feel more proficient in it. This isn't something that you decide to do in one day and then it carries for the rest of your life. It is a conscious, concerted effort every day to stay present as much as possible.
All it takes is 10 minutes
Why is Mindfulness Important to our Health?
Research performed by a group of neuroscientists at Harvard University showed that practicing mindfulness and meditation techniques actually increased regional brain gray matter density. Grey matter is the part of the brain that contains the most neuronal cell bodies. The grey matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control. The lead researcher in this study, Sara Lazar, Ph.D., stated that “although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.”
Magnetic resonance images (MRI scans) of everyone’s brains were taken before and after they completed the meditation training, and a control group of people who didn’t do any mindfulness training also had their brains scanned.After completing the mindfulness course, all participants reported significant improvement in measures of mindfulness, such as “acting with awareness” and “non-judging.” This means that not only are we experiencing an increased sense of well-being and less anxiety while we are practicing being mindful, we are also re-configuring our brains in ways that continues long after a mindfulness technique is initiated. Britta Hölzel, another researcher involved with the study, noted that “it is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”
The Practice of Mindfulness
Where to Get Started How can we incorporate some of these centuries-old mindfulness and meditation techniques into our busy, 21st century lives? Jon Kabat-Zinn has some tips for how to use simple meditation techniques to increase your mindfulness in everyday life:
- Pay close attention to your breathing, especially when you’re feeling intense emotions.
- Notice—really notice—what you’re sensing in a given moment, the sights, sounds, and smells that ordinarily slip by without reaching your conscious awareness.
- Recognize that your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you, an insight that can free you from negative thought patterns.
- Tune into your body’s physical sensations, from the water hitting your skin in the shower to the way your body rests in your office chair.
Check out these interesting videos and meditation techniques to assist you in practicing mindfulness and developing the lifelong skill of staying in the present moment!
The Rise of Mindfulness in Society: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jtOY2mpHdg
Breath and Bodyscape Guided Meditation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdG2C8wr1pc
The Benefits of Mindfulness: http://www.helpguide.org/harvard/mindfulness.htm
Brown University Health Education: Mindfulness http://www.brown.edu/Student_Services/Health_Services/Health_Education/
1 Miller A.K.H., Alston R.L., Corsellis J.A.N. Variation with age in the volumes of grey and white matter in the cerebral hemispheres of man: measurements with an image analyser. Neuropathol. Appl. Neurobiol. 1980;6:119–132.
2 Holzel B.K., Carmody J., Vangel M., Congleton C., Yerramsetti S.M., Gard T., Lazar S.W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research - Neuroimaging, 191 (1) , pp. 36-43.
3 Puddicombe, Andy. "Mindfulness: All It Takes Is 10 Mindful Minutes." TED Talks. TED Conferences, LLC, 01 Nov. 2012. Web. 30 May 2014. .
4 David Creswell, Laura E. Pacilio, Emily K. Lindsay, Kirk Warren Brown. (2014). Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology - June 2014 (Vol. 44Complete, Pages 1-12, DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.02.007)