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When you hear the word “mindfulness,” your mind might turn to Tibetan monks sitting serenely in meditation for hours or yogis sweating it out on the mat. However, while specific practices might encourage mindfulness, the idea itself is much more than something you participate in for a few hours a week. It’s a lifestyle that can radically transform your mental, sometimes even physical, health.
Western scientists once pooh-poohed the idea that mind-body practices could spur meaningful healing. However, recent research using functional magnetic resonance imaging shows that practices like meditation can influence physical functioning and even rewire the structure of your brain. Why should you initiate your practice? Here are four science-based benefits of mindfulness.
1. It Helps Relieve Stress
Stress. Many of us have too much of it, which has only increased since the pandemic. According to the World Health Organization, the unique pressures created by COVID-19 led to a 25% increase in the number of people diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
Unfortunately, far too many people seek to ease stressful feelings by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. The problem is particularly acute in the U.S. Recent research by teams of neurobiologists published in JAMA explored why deaths of despair, such as drug overdoses, increased more sharply in this nation and others.
It turns out that human beings are hard-wired by biology for social support networks. While other wealthy nations have safety nets in place for people who lose their jobs or get sick, the U.S.’s insistence on individual “bootstrapping” has left people isolated, without the tools or human compassion they need to bounce back from tragedies. One misstep can spell financial disaster — and all the associated poverty stress. The vicious downward spiral continues.
While systemic change is necessary, mindfulness provides individuals with a powerful tool to relieve stress, even amid the most stressful circumstances. A regular yoga or meditation practice offers an essential break from the negative stimuli that bombard you daily. It gives you a chance to hit pause and reconnect with your inner self. The best classes also imbue you with the sense of community and love often lacking in today’s society.
Mindfulness in daily practice helps you recognize your maladaptive responses to stress. For example, you may catch yourself on the way to the liquor store. You know that alcohol only increases your anxiety and tension the following day — you then recognize that you’re blindly following years of messaging that “I need a drink” is the way to cope with tough emotions. As such, you make a wiser choice, opting for chamomile and a bath or a good workout to ease frustration instead.
2. It Treats Various Mental Health Disorders
Mindfulness is a powerful technique to use if you have a mental health diagnosis. It can tune you into your maladaptive beliefs, behaviors and patterns that exacerbate your conditions and lead to poor life choices.
For example, mindfulness meditation teaches you to examine your thoughts with openness and curiosity instead of sublimating them. Your goal is to sit in silence and clear your mind — but ideas will intrude. When they do, you picture yourself as a neutral observer, like you’re reading a book with you as the protagonist and your thoughts cast upon the page.
When you engage in this practice, you might notice yourself thinking, “I never do anything right,” or, “there’s no hope for me.” That’s when the skills you learn through cognitive-behavioral and dialectical behavioral therapy come into play. Are those ideas really true? How could you rephrase them differently to be more truthful — and self-compassionate? For example, you could counter, “Nobody likes me,” by listing all the people who find you fabulous.
3. It Calms Chronic Pain
It’s understandable to be skeptical about mind-body practices if you have chronic pain. After all, if your condition was something you could correct yourself, wouldn’t you have done so by now?
Mindfulness won’t necessarily result in a clean bill of health the next time you visit the doctor. However, it can make your conditions infinitely more bearable.
One way it helps is by making you aware of what’s bothering you so that you can take the best action to comfort and heal yourself. You’ve probably snapped at people more than once when you feel awful without recognizing that your pain made you snippy — but an explanation doesn’t fix hurt feelings.
Mindfulness lets you recognize, “Hey, I have a migraine,” or, “I’m having an arthritis flare.” You can then offer your explanation to those around you and do what you need to do to feel better. You might need to lay down in a dark room for a while or take it easy for the day.
Even more exciting research shows how mindfulness meditation can decrease the levels of inflammatory biomarkers like IL-6. The study involved 35 participants, some of which were given a 3-day intensive mindfulness course and the others who relaxed without the instruction. Those who practiced mindfulness showed lower inflammation levels — those who simply relaxed did not.
4. It Can Rewire Your Brain
Perhaps the most exciting research into mindfulness and mental and physical health involve its impact on your brain’s default mode network. This large-scale brain network comes into play when your mind isn’t actively engaged with the outside world but daydreaming or wandering. Research into this field remains in its infancy, but scientists believe your DMN affects everything from how you think about events that have happened to you and how you relate to others.
When your DMN becomes overactive, mental health symptoms often develop. You may develop anxiety from focusing on your fears or depression from ruminating on things you can’t change. However, research indicates that those who participate in mindfulness meditation have decreased activity in their DMN, correlating to improved outcomes.
4 Science-Based Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness has multiple benefits proven by science. It isn’t a quick fix. It takes time and dedication to work. However, many researchers now believe in its efficacy as a potent tool for improving your mental and even physical health.
Once you begin a mindfulness practice, it quickly becomes a way of life. You’ll find yourself paying attention more in daily life, not only when you’re on the mat. You’ll gain valuable insight into yourself and improve your overall health.
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