Mindfulness - What Exactly is it?
There’s something that’s been around since the ancients that has the modern world sitting up and taking notice. It’s the practice of mindfulness and though it’s an ancient craft, the scientific community has only starting reaching for it relatively recently - and the world is loving what it’s finding.
Once it might have been considered ‘alternative’, as in, ‘alternative to something that science says works’, but not anymore. There’s now a growing body of research showing the clear benefits of mindfulness.
Why should we take notice?
The number of people dealing with depression, anxiety and stress worldwide are staggering. The World Health Organization estimates that about one in four people will be affected by some sort of mental or neurological disorder at some point in their lives. With stats like this, chances are that if you aren’t directly affected by a mental illness, someone you love will be.
The need for an effective way to manage our mental health has never been more upon us. With this in mind, science and major health organizations including the National Institute of Mental Health – the largest scientific, research focused mental health organization in the world - have turned to age-old techniques to explore what they have to offer us in modern times. It seems they have plenty.
Mindfulness – Exactly What Is It?
Mindfulness is a way to train the brain to attend to what we want it to attend to by being fully present and experiencing the moment without judging, analyzing or needing to change anything. It sounds easy enough, but we humans tend to drift into worrying about the future or ruminating over the past with spectacular ease, so staying in the present can take a bit of practice.
By learning to fully engage with our experience – what we see, hear, touch, taste, think and feel, the person we’re talking to, the food we’re eating, the skin we’re in, the walk we’re walking - we get more out of life. We accept rather than judge. We notice rather than take for granted. We enjoy the pleasures that are right in front of us that we miss too often and we become better at dealing with the things that go wrong.
Life is happening all the time and we miss it by getting caught up in thoughts of the past or the future. Of course, we do need to reflect and plan, but too much of that will lead to depression or anxiety or a host of other discomforts and illnesses. Focusing on the here and now stifles the likelihood of regret over the past or worry about the future, which lie at the heart of depression and anxiety respectively. It also loosens preoccupations with success or how we’re doing in the world compared to others and enhances our ability to form deeper connections with others.
How Does it Work?
Mindfulness changes the brain. It creates new neural connections and pathways and strengthens particular areas including those associated with attention and emotion regulation, anxiety and stress, and learning and memory.
The brain allocates resources depending on need. Mindfulness works by training the brain to redivert mental resources away from excessive worry about the future (anxiety) or regret about the past (depression) and back to the present experience.
The healing power of mindfulness also lies in its capacity to reverse the stress response. It increases activity in the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain that takes care of conscious thinking and planning) and decreases activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex (the areas of the brain that initiate the body’s stress physical response).
This means clearer thinking, more effective planning and less susceptibility to the damage caused by the surge of neurochemicals that are triggered by the stress response – damage that contributes to stress-related illnesses such as depression, heart disease and anxiety, to name a few.
And the Proof?
There’s plenty. MRI scans have revealed that mindfulness increases the density of gray matter in the parts of the brain connected with:
- The hippocampus – important for learning and memory
- Neural structures associated with awareness, compassion and introspection;
- The amygdala – associated with anxiety and stress
Studies have also shown that mindfulness:
- Can be as effective as more traditional talk therapies in the treatment of anxiety and depression;
- Decreases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, so quite literally, it lowers stress;
- Improves cognitive function (helps you to nail that test and make better decisions);
- Helps with greater control over the brain’s ability to process pain and emotions even when you’re not practicing it;
- Strengthens the immune system and helps to get you through cold and flu season a little healthier, reducing the incidence, duration and severity of colds and flu;
- Can help to reduce and prevent depression in teens.
According to the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, mindfulness can also:
- Alleviate asthma;
- Alleviate hot flashes;
- Improve the quality of life for people with cancer;
- Improve the experience of conditions such as gastrointestinal disorders, HIV and fibromyalgia.
We’re still learning everything there is to know about mindfulness, and we probably will be for a while. One thing we know for certain though is that through mindfulness, we can learn to live better, love better and do better.