Train the brain with mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness is “in” right now, you hear about it everywhere, it is “cool” to be “mindful,” but does everyone know what it really means? Mindfulness is the awareness of self and surroundings in the present. Are you making a concerted daily effort to be mindful? Should you start today?

Meditation is one technique to increase mindfulness and is said to have many mental and even physical benefits when it is used as a practice. How do you meditate- sit in a quiet room? Think about nothing? Not necessarily…Meditation involves being present and observing your current state and connectedness to your surroundings- focusing on simple things like relaxing your muscles (letting go of any physical tension so you can then focus on releasing the mental or psychological tension). If you don’t know what you’re doing check out a meditation app, google it, find a guided meditation on youtube- they literally tell you what to do (this is what works best for me right now because I’m pretty new to meditation). There is research and TedTalks and plenty of other sources out there for you to learn more, but here’s a quick run-down…

Meditation may not feel natural at first- so many of us are in a constant rush, we’re overworked and we’ve over scheduled our daily lives. The increased rates of anxiety and depression are directly related to our levels of stress and what’s going on in our bodies. A lot of what goes on with our bodies has to do with our minds- our minds are constantly going, constantly worried about the future, constantly ruminating on the negative. With the stress hormones continuously flowing- we have a hard time being present in the now and letting go of the fears and anxieties relating to things over which we have no control. If we cannot control it, wouldn’t it serve us best to let the thoughts go? So, how do we do that? How do we get our minds to allow us to let go? We have to practice awareness. When you practice meditation it allows you to become more familiar with your mind- to recognize your worries, anxieties and irrationalities. If you can recognize when these thoughts creep in- you can react appropriately. Let the thought exist, acknowledge it, and if it doesn’t serve you, let the thought pass. Easier said than done obviously.

We’ve heard and seen plenty of claims as far as the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, but what does the science tell us? There is a mind-body connection that is difficult to study- how much of the benefits seen in these studies can be chalked up to a placebo effect (where results are seen partly because we expect to see results- again here we are with the mind-body connection). There is scientific research out there with some incredible supporting evidence for the benefits of meditation.

A meditation practice has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce general stress and anxiety levels, improve anxiety and depression disorders, improve menopausal symptoms, improve ADHD symptoms, help with cancer symptoms and with medication side effects, among other health concerns. A 2014 meta-analysis found that, “mindfulness meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression, and pain, and low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life.”  Although it says moderate and low, the findings were significant enough to report and that’s key. Let’s focus on the “improved…mental-health quality of life,” THAT is something many of us can admit we’d like to have.

Mental health is so important and the goal of meditation is to regulate emotion, reduce stress, and promote self-awareness. The NIH reports, “Results of a recent pilot study suggest that middle school-aged students who meditated during a 6-week, classroom-based mindfulness meditation program were significantly less likely than non-meditators to develop suicidal thoughts or self-harming thoughts or behaviors.” This is huge news as suicide rates (across all ages) have increased 31% between 2001-2017.

The examples above are just a few of the many studies on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. You don’t have to be a yogi, or a Buddhist seeking enlightenment to benefit from meditation practice, you just have to believe in the science that supports its beneficial effects. For some people it is a spiritual practice, but if that’s not your thing consider it part of self-care, taking care of your mind. Give it a try- maybe a few tries because it can feel unnatural at first for some. Be open-minded and be consistent or it won’ work. Download an app, try some guided meditations/breathing exercises. Pick something that works for you and make it a new habit.

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