A fast-paced culture of constant multi-tasking and 24/7 digital connectivity characterizes the opposite of mindful living. A commonly accepted definition of mindfulness comes from John Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Mindfulness is a mind and body practice that centers on the connections between the brain, mind, body and behavior.
Stress and the Nervous System
The nervous system is always working in the body but most often, individuals are not even aware of automatic functions such as the heartbeat, digestion, breathing, pupil dilation or saliva production. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for a normal, relaxed state where the body and mind can “rest and digest.” In threatening situations, the sympathetic nervous system automatically shifts to “fight or flight” mode including stress hormones flowing through the blood system. Both modes are important to humans but a serious health concern is that individuals stay in the sympathetic, “fight or flight” mode too often and too long. The harmful consequences of operating out of a constant state of stressful living often include negative costs to well-being, physical health and longevity. Not only is it detrimental to individuals, the American Psychological Association has also warned that the United States is facing a stress-induced public health crisis. On the other hand, the physical and mental benefits of the parasympathetic system include an increased blood flow which triggers a relaxation response as well as feelings of well-being.
Research on mindfulness practices has spanned a variety of fields of study including but not limited to: medical, psychological, social and educational. In addition, mindfulness programs are being offered in a wide variety of settings such as: schools, parenting classes, caretaker support, worksites, prisons, etc. Research suggests that mindfulness training and practice is beneficial to the improvement and well-being of everyday life. A short summary of researched benefits of mindfulness practice:
- Decreased stress and anxiety and rumination
- Improved attention, memory and the ability to focus
- Reduced chronic pain
- Increased immune system
- Relationship satisfaction and promotion of empathy and compassion
Although the traditions of current mindfulness programs are rooted in Eastern meditation, contemporary mindfulness practice does not necessarily align with a religion nor is it identical to meditation. Mindfulness programs might utilize meditation techniques in addition to other ways to practice mindfulness in a formal way. A few examples of mindfulness exercises include:
- Breathing exercises can be done individually, or by listening to an instructor or an audio guide of a breathing exercise. Unlike when breathing is an automatic function, this mindful technique encourages taking a moment to be present, and focus on completely inhaling and exhaling air in and out of the lungs. Afterwards, this exercise usually leads to the healthy default of deeper, slower breathing.
- A Body Scan simply means noticing each part of the body without judgement. It can be done sitting or lying down and helps with awareness of each part of the body and how it feels at the moment.
- Imagery exercises help picture a calming place for relaxation. This technique, also called visualization, focuses on a positive mental image to replace negative thoughts and feelings.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation includes tensing and relaxing different muscle groups of the body to decrease physical tension in the muscles. The tensing and releasing encourages letting go of physical stress.
- Yoga, tai chi or other physical activity that helps focus on the body and current movements offer a physical focus on the meditation. They offer physical benefits as well as mental relaxation.
- Mindful Eating promotes taking the time to slow down to enjoy food by using all the senses. This can encourage feelings of gratefulness, fullness and greater enjoyment of food.
All of these practices can be done on an individual basis but sometimes it’s helpful to take a class or mindfulness program, read a book or watch a video for guidance and suggestions. Mindfulness programs often use a variety as well as combination of techniques and exercises during mindful practice.
Making Mindfulness a Regular Practice
It is important for individuals to find the right technique and mindfulness program for personal benefits. Too many obligations, stress and deadlines often undermine healthy habits such as eating, sleeping and exercising. Just like other healthy practices, the pattern of practicing mindfulness has a positive cumulative effect over time. Not only can mindfulness practice be relaxing in the moment, but it can also set up an individual to experience heightened enjoyment of positive life experiences and minimize the adverse reactions to negative life experiences. In general, mindfulness practice is considered safe for healthy people but is not recommended to use in place of health care. As mindfulness practice can offer complementary benefits to other forms of treatment, always discuss your habits with your health care provider.
The purpose of practicing mindfulness exercises on a regular basis is not necessarily in order to get better at it. The goal of the practice is to make mindfulness a habit or routine as part of a healthy lifestyle. Mindfulness participants are encouraged to find what works best for them, actively participate in formal mindfulness trainings (whether that is a class, a book or download) and make a commitment to practice mindfulness on a regular basis. With practice, one can become more mindful throughout the day, and throughout life, not just during the time of formal mindfulness practice.
- Chudler, E. H. “Neuroscience for kids.” (updated 2016) Retrieved from faculty.washington.edu/chudler/auto.html.
- Davis, D., and Hayes, J. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy. 48(2):198-208.
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- Klatt, M. (2012). “Mindful extension: A guide to practical stress reduction strategies.” Retrieved from mindfulmgmt.com/.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2014, November). “Meditation: What you need to know.” Retrieved from nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm.
- University of California, Berkeley. (2015, June). “What Is Mindfulness?” Retrieved from greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness.