What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is the “quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” By focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, a person can achieve a calmer and more aware mental state. The ability to harness one’s mind is used as a common therapeutic technique. Mindfulness can be any activity or state of being that allows us to achieve a state of calm by directing our focus inward. Mindfulness can take the form of meditation, breathing, therapeutic coloring, yoga, visualization and guided imagery, or Tai Chi to name a few. The similarity among these activities is that they bring awareness inward and allow us to achieve peace or stillness of the mind. These activities are no longer exclusively spiritual or esoteric practices but have become widely accepted and available into mainstream circles. Today, many health clubs and fitness studios offer a variation of yoga or mind-body classes, and we also see mindfulness programs popping up in hospitals, prisons, veteran’s facilities, and school detention halls. Mindfulness activities have been used as a therapeutic intervention for those suffering with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to enhance cancer and substance abuse treatments, and as an alternative to punishment in school settings. Scientific literature confirms that the regular practice of mindfulness activities can rewire us at a molecular level and can make permanent changes to our health and well-being. Adding a mindfulness practice of 30-45 minutes into your daily routine is an important tool in our quest to physical and emotional wellness, improved interpersonal relationships, and general sense of satisfaction and well-being.
How Does Mindfulness Work?
Interestingly, most people will acknowledge the role stress plays in worsening illness, but we are less likely to accept the role relaxing can play in healing. Training your brain to slow down can allow us to bypass the fight-or-flight mechanism. The fight-or-flight response (also called hyperarousal, or the acute stress response) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. Part of that physiological response is the release of a hormone called cortisol, known as the stress hormone. This cortisol/stress response is a good thing for short-term threats, but when people are exposed to chronic or on-going stress there is damage to our bodies, and this can have devastating consequences to a person’s health. Even remembering traumatic experiences cause our bodies to react by releasing cortisol, long after the actual threat is over. Additionally, exposure to chronic stress affects our emotional intelligence (our ability to process emotions, regulate those emotions, and choose appropriate action) and our ability to self-regulate our emotions. Mindfulness can retrain the brain in such a way that allows for successful self-regulation. Our ability to cope with stressors and effectively manage our emotions can help reverse many of the long-term consequences of traumatic experiences.
Trauma as a Source of Behavioral Issues at School
In the school setting trauma can manifest into behavioral and emotional issues as well as cognitive disabilities. Studies indicate that 35% of American children will experience at least one type of trauma by the time they reach kindergarten. Many schools have been proactive in their approach to managing trauma. Instead of just addressing the maladaptive behavior being expressed by the child, some schools are using mindfulness meditation to help the children mitigate the damage caused by trauma. This therapeutic intervention not only assists in reduction of stress for individuals dealing with trauma, but also can be used as a useful tool in the classroom to create a positive and productive learning environment. A school in West Baltimore, Maryland sends disruptive students to the Mindful Moment Room where they can work with staff members to learn and use calming techniques. Since the implementation of the program they have had fewer discipline referrals and zero suspensions. Research on mindfulness indicate that it reduces stress and anxiety while improving attention and memory and promoting self-regulation. Furthermore, mindfulness has been shown to help people struggle with addiction issues. Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), a mindfulness programs specifically designed for addiction treatment, addresses the root of addictive behavior by addressing two main indicators of relapse: negative emotions and cravings. Addictions (as well as most habits) become unconscious patterns that we engage in automatically and without conscious thought. Mindfulness training allows us to bring those patterns to our conscious awareness making them easier to change.
Positive Impact of Meditation on Health
Mindfulness meditation can change the brain’s matter and structure for the better. Mind-body interventions (MBI) such as meditation have been shown to significantly improve inflammation caused by chronic stress. Although limited, studies suggest that mind-body interventions not only reverse the expression of genes involved in inflammatory reactions that are induced by stress, but that MBI practices may also lead to a reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases. When a person is dealing with the stress of a chronic, or a potentially terminal illness, mindfulness practices have shown to decrease inflammation, decrease experience of pain, and enhance immune system functioning. A 2011 study of cancer patients found that most participants experienced positive effects after participating in the mindfulness program including increased calm, enhanced sleep quality, more energy, less physical pain, and increased well-being. This improved sense of well-being allows the person to be positioned to heal from the illness and make choices that enhance their health. This is one of the reasons leading researchers to speculate that regular practice of meditation will increase life expectancy.
Meditation Causes Cellular Changes in the Brain
Inside the nucleus of a cell, our genes are arranged along twisted, double-stranded molecules of DNA called chromosomes. At the ends of the chromosomes are stretches of DNA called telomeres, which protect our genetic data, make it possible for cells to divide. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. Telomere shortening is the main cause of age-related break down of our cells. This shortening process is associated with aging, cancer, and other negative impacts to health. When telomeres get too short, our cells can no longer reproduce, which causes our tissues to degenerate and eventually die. Meditation has been shown to protect and lengthen telomeres, thus increasing the protection of each chromosome. Well-protected chromosomes create vibrant cells, which in turn contribute to a vital, healthy body. DNA is even altered as a result of mindfulness activities on a regular basis.
Meditation, even training as brief as an eight-week program, has shown to alter brain structure and functioning. A 2017 study found that three different types of meditation training are linked to changes in corresponding brain regions. For example, training in “presence”, or awareness, are shown to enhance thickness in the anterior prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the area of the brain involved in attention while affect training was linked to increase thickness in areas that involve socially driven emotions like empathy. These changes created permanent changes in brain structure.
Not sold on the value of meditation yet? According to research, people with consistently high health care costs experienced a 28 % cumulative decrease in medical costs after practicing the stress-reducing meditation technique compared with their baseline. A regular practice of mindfulness can improve health, decrease manifestations of aging, change brain structure, help regulate emotions, improve overall well-being, and help reduce health care costs. Unlike surgical or pharmaceutical interventions, mindfulness has no known side-effects! There are numerous free or low-cost options in almost every community, as well as online options, making mindfulness accessible for everyone.