8 Health Benefits of Mindfulness and How to Develop a Mindfulness Practice
Several years ago, I had developed a regular mindfulness practice. Over time, though, life seemed to get busier, and I let it go. But recently I've come back to making a conscious effort to practice mindfulness, and I am feeling a difference. You've probably heard that being mindful or being "present in the moment" is a good thing. But what does "mindfulness" mean, and how can you benefit from it? Mindfulness can be described as being focused on the present or as "the nonjudgemental awareness of experiences in the present moment." Although further research needs to be done, evidence is building that mindfulness meditation- the practice of sitting quietly and bringing your attention to the present moment- has a number of health benefits. Here are eight of them.
The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
1. Lower Levels of Stress
Many people practice mindfulness meditation as a way of managing stress. Not only is this practice associated with feelings of lower stress, it has also been linked to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Mindfulness meditation may therefore stimulate physiological changes in the body that can help reduce feelings of stress.
2. Decreased Symptoms of Anxiety
Mindfulness meditation can be a useful tool for the treatment of anxiety. Persons with anxiety may have unproductive worries or difficulty dealing with distracting thoughts that do not help in solving a problem. Regular mindfulness practice allows you to interpret various thoughts and experiences- especially negative ones- differently. When a negative thought crosses your mind, mindfulness teaches you to think, "there's that thought again, but it's just a thought." Such recognition of negative thoughts can decrease their power and lower the anxiety that they may cause. Mindfulness has also been linked to decreased rumination, or repetitively going over a thought or problem.
3. Brain Changes That May Protect Against Mental Illness
Researchers at the University of Oregon found that students who practiced integrative body-mind training (IBMT)- a technique that emphasizes awareness of the body, mind, and environment- experienced structural changes in their brains. MRIs showed increases in participants' brain signaling connections and protective myelin ("white matter") after a month of practicing IBMT. Such physical changes in the brain may underlie some of the improvements in mood that participants reported. Furthermore, changes in white matter stimulated by IBMT "could provide a means for intervention to improve or prevent mental disorders," the study authors stated.
4. Decreased Cold and Flu Symptoms
Mindfulness meditation may help lessen the effects of colds. In a small study, people who maintained a regular mindfulness practice for eight weeks had less severe, fewer, and shorter acute respiratory symptoms than those who did not.
5. Improved Ability to Focus
It will probably come as no surprise that a mindfulness practice can improve your ability to focus and to tune out distracting information. It can also function as the brain's "volume knob," allowing you to have greater control over processing pain and emotions.
6. Greater Satisfaction in Relationships
Even people in the healthiest of relationships can experience conflict and disagreement and the stress that comes with them. However, there is evidence that mindfulness can help protect against the effects of relationship conflict and can support the ability to express oneself in a variety of social situations.
7. A Better Night's Sleep
A high level of mindfulness has been linked to better control over one's behaviors and emotions during the daytime and to lower levels of activation around bedtime. This can have benefits for sleep quality.
8. Limited Expression of Genes that Trigger Inflammation
This benefit is perhaps the most amazing one to me. Long-term inflammation has been linked to a variety of chronic health problems, including, but not limited to, chronic pain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and thyroid issues. However, mindfulness may actually limit the expression of genes that can trigger inflammation. In fact, mindfulness may suppress the genes that are currently targeted by anti-inflammatory drugs.
How to Develop a Regular Mindfulness Practice
Like anything else, developing a regular mindfulness practice takes time and, well, practice. Here are some steps to help you get started.
1. Choose the right spot. Find a quiet place where you can sit every time that you do your mindfulness practice. It can be any spot in your home, or even a place outside, as long as you feel comfortable and peaceful there. You may wish to arrange the things in the immediate area so that they give you a sense of peace. For example, I am a very neat person by nature, so I like to keep the room where I practice neat and tidy. I also enjoy having pictures of my family on the walls because just seeing them when I enter the room makes me feel happy. Once you've selected a place for your mindfulness practice, place a folded blanket, cushion, or chair there.
2. Pick a time for your practice. Choose a time of day that's going to work with your schedule and your personal preferences. If you're not a morning person, don't plan to get up earlier to do your practice! You can practice mindfulness at any time of the day, but it needs to be a time that's going to work for you so that you'll be motivated to stick with it.
3. Find a comfortable seated position. You're going to be sitting still for several minutes, so find a posture that feels comfortable. I like to sit cross-legged with my hands resting on my knees. Sometimes I sit with my back to a wall if I feel like I'm going to need a little extra support. As you settle into your posture, gently close your eyes. Observe any tension that your muscles may be holding, and try to let it go.
4. Attend to your breathing. Focusing on your breathing can be an incredibly powerful tool for cultivating mindfulness. As you attend to your breath, notice where you are feeling it- in the rise and fall of your belly, in the subtle expanding and contracting of your ribs, in a small rush of air from your nose. As you begin to pay more attention to your breath, you may find yourself trying to control it, to slow it down or to breathe more deeply. Try to let your breath flow naturally and to simply observe it as it comes and goes.
5. Notice when your mind begins to wander, and gently bring it back. When we are sitting still, "doing nothing," it is amazing how quickly our minds begin to wander. When you notice that you mind is wandering (and it will!), you can acknowledge to yourself that your mind was elsewhere, and then gently bring your attention back to your next breath. When you do find your mind wandering, try not to pass judgment on yourself or to feel frustrated. A key part of mindfulness is to practice non-judgment, to accept that your thoughts strayed for a bit, and to bring them back to your breath. During any given mindfulness practice, your thoughts may wander over and over. Each time this happens, simply acknowledge the thought, and refocus on you breathing.
6. Gradually increase your mindfulness practice time. When you first begin practicing mindfulness, 5 minutes or so may be more than enough for you. As you begin to practice each day, you'll find it easier to increase the time that you dedicate to your practice.
Do you practice mindfulness? How has it helped you?
Chan, Amanda L. "Meditation, Exercise Could Protect You From The Flu." Huffington Post. 14 July 2012. Web. 19 September 2017.
Chan, Amanda L. "Mindfulness Meditation Benefits: 20 Reasons Why It’s Good For Your Mental And Physical Health." Huffington Post. 8 April 2013. Web. 19 September 2017.
"Chinese meditation IBMT prompts double positive punch in brain white matter." University of Oregon. 11 June 2012. Web. 19 September 2017.
Corliss, Julie. "Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress." Harvard Medical School. 8 January 2014. Web. 18 September 2017.
Davis, Daphne M. "What are the benefits of mindfulness?" American Psychological Association. July/August 2012. Web. 18 September 2017.
Howard, Jacqueline. "‘Mindfulness’ Meditation Alters Gene Expression, Study Suggests." Huffington Post. 23 January 2014. Web. 19 September 2017.
Kornfield, Jack. "Developing a Daily Practice." Mindfulness. 23 August 2010. Web. 20 September 2017.
Marquis, David M. "How Inflammation Affects Every Aspect of Your Health." Mercola.com. 7 March 2013. Web. 19 September 2017.
About the Author
Hi, I'm Katie! I love writing for the Blog and working as a Verefina Communications Specialist! I'm also the creator of An Ever Green Life, a blog that seeks to empower my readers to make changes that will improve their health and help protect our environment.