What is mindfulness and how can it help you?

Whilst the word ‘meditation’ can still conjure the image of a yoga guru levitating with legs folded in lotus position, society is coming to understand the importance of bringing one’s awareness back to the present moment through mindfulness and meditation. Anyone can take practice mindfulness, and with perseverance you will start to notice some benefits.

Meditation encompasses a wide variety of practices, from mindfulness to guided meditations and specific meditation techniques. It can be practised sitting, standing or lying down, either alone, or in groups and may last anywhere from seconds to days.

Meditation can be defined as:

“a mind and body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being. Mind and body practices focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behaviour."1

Mindfulness can be described as placing attention on the present moment by focussing on what you are doing or what you are observing.  A person practicing mindfulness might choose to eliminate the distractions of television, phones or music so they can dedicate all their attention to what they are doing. If they were enjoying a meal they would take time to savour and truly experience every mouthful. If they were sitting in silence they might complete a ‘body scan’ exercise to become more in connected to their body and feelings in the present moment, helping with self-awareness.

Mindfulness meditation is used in clinics, via programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. It is also seen increasingly in our schools and workplaces, as a valuable tool to reduce stress and anxiety. New Zealand psychologist and author, Nigel Latta, explains that mindfulness practices help to

“… develop increased calm and resilience, increased focus and attention, enhanced self-awareness and conflict-resolution skills, increased kindness, empathy, connection and pro-social behaviour, and statistically significant increases in emotional and general wellbeing.” 2

 

Research

A basic PubMed search on the health benefits of meditation results in nearly 500 research papers, demonstrating why we should consider meditation as part of our health and wellbeing routines.

When we are in a state of stress or anxiety, the body responds physiologically in several ways, in the same way it would prepare to flee the scene when faced with a terrifying encounter, such as the infamous tiger in the room scenario. This fight or flight response is also known as the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which prompts the adrenals to pump neurotransmitters such as adrenaline around the body.  In turn, the heart beats faster, our breathing increases, senses are heightened, glucose is released into the bloodstream to provide energy and blood is pumped away from the core to our peripheries to prepare us for “flight”.

Conversely, when relaxed, the body is said to be in the “rest and digest” mode.  In this instance the parasympathetic nervous system is ruling the show, our blood circulates around the body, we can focus more clearly, and our circulation returns to normal, servicing both the core and periphery organs, allowing us to digest our food. 

Research shows that meditation and mindfulness techniques calm the nervous system by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.  A 2009 study of 80 students, 40 practising a Traditional Chinese Medicine body mind practice using aspects of mindfulness meditation, measured this effect through heart rate, skin conductance response (SCR), and respiratory amplitude and rate.  Over a 5-day period, students practised mindfulness meditation for 20 minutes a day.  Compared to the other 40 students, who participated instead in relaxation training, the mindfulness meditation group were found to exhibit a lower heart rate and SCR, increased belly respiratory amplitude, and decreased chest respiratory rate.3

Studies using magnetic resonance imagery of the brain, show the impact that mindfulness programs have on stressed, anxious and healthy people. These findings attribute reduced stress, anxiety and better emotional regulation to altered function and structure of the brain. Mindfulness was associated with increased activity in areas of the brain governing the stress response – the prefrontal cortex, insula, cingulate cortex and hippocampus. Whilst decreased activity was observed in the amygdala, responsible for fear related behaviours4.

Research is also starting to show the potential effects of “mindfulness meditation on specific markers of inflammation, cell-mediated immunity, and biological aging”.5 A 2016 systematic review of 20 randomised controlled trials found evidence that mindfulness meditation may reduce inflammation, increase cell-mediated immunity and increase telomerase – an enzyme which can slow, stop, or perhaps reverse telomere shortening that happens as we age.

Telomeres are little protective caps that sit on the end of your chromosomes, just like the end of shoelaces. Telomeres play an important role in safeguarding our genome. As we age telomere shortening naturally occurs, however, high levels of stress can accelerate telomere shortening.

A mindfulness exercise to try at home:

If you have a moment, practice some mindfulness using a small piece of chocolate.  Take three slow breaths in and out, then bring all your focus to this food. 

Consider what it looks like – observe its size, colour and texture.  How does it feel in your hand?  Is it cool, warm, smooth, rough?  What does the weight of the chocolate feel like in your hand?  Putting it into your mouth, allowing it to slowly dissolve on your tongue, what does it feel like on your tongue?  Is it smooth or rough?  What does it taste like?  How much space does it occupy in your mouth?  Is it melting?  How does that change its texture and the space it is occupying in your mouth?  Consider observing the chocolate until it has completely dissolved.  Taking another long breath, check in with yourself.  Do you feel any different to when you started this exercise?

Resources

If you are interested in how to incorporate mindfulness meditation into your health and wellbeing regime, you may want to start with just a 5-10 minute session and build from there.

There are a number of free apps that are available to get you started. Alternatively, you may prefer to find out whether there are any local courses you can attend, or whether this is something offered in your workplace.

Suzy Walsh BBA (Hons)., BNat., mNMHNZ is a Registered Naturopath & Medical Herbalist

 

References:

[1] National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH). (2016, April). Meditation. NCCIH. https://files.nccih.nih.gov/s3fs-public/Meditation_04-25-2016.pdf

[2] Latte, N. (2018, August 6). Lending my support to providing pause, breathe, smile in all NZ schools. The Mindfulness Education Group. https://mindfulnesseducation.nz/lending-my-support-to-providing-pause-breathe-smile-in-all-nz-schools/

[3] Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Fan, Y., Feng, H., Wang, J., Feng, S., Lu, Q., Hu, B., Lin, Y., Li, J., Zhang, Y., Wang, Y., Zhou, L., & Fan, M. (2009). Central and autonomic nervous system interaction is altered by short-term meditation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences106(22), 8865-8870. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0904031106

[4] Gotink, R. A., Meijboom, R., Vernooij, M. W., Smits, M., & Hunink, M. M. (2016). 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction induces brain changes similar to traditional long-term meditation practice – A systematic review. Brain and Cognition, 108, 32-41. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2016.07.001

[5] Black, D. S., & Slavich, G. M. (2016). Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1373(1), 13-24. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12998