Unlocking the Health Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

Life is full of experiences that provoke stressful thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it can be hard to resist dwelling on these feelings as we go about our day. We can get stuck on auto-pilot, giving little attention to our bodies or physical environment as we walk through our lives, busy in thought or distracted by technology.

Chronic stress often goes unchecked and has detrimental effects on many aspects of our health. Many chronic health conditions can be attributed to stress. Stress has the ability to bring on or worsen the symptoms of other disease, but it can also manifest its own physical symptoms. Stress can produce headaches, skin conditions, high blood pressure, heart problems, asthma, anxiety, depression, and more.

Mindfulness meditation can be used as a treatment for many chronic illnesses that relate to stress in both our bodies and mind. Mindfulness meditation focuses on being alive in the moment so that there is less room to worry about the past or the future. It helps you feel more connected to your body and lessens the stress in your mind. Cultivating an awareness of the present moment and environment is an essential integrative medicine technique for reducing stress and anxiety.

Recent research has shown that practicing mindfulness daily can help change our brains and improve our well-being. Mindfulness is about being aware of your body, surrounding environment, and your inner thought-processes. It can help you manage life’s challenges with a calm and clear-headed approach. Future fears and negative past experiences can cloud your mind and distract you from the simplicity of the present. Although we have many positive thoughts and experiences to focus on, throughout our lives we can also gather negative or unhelpful thought patterns which can limit how we experience the world.

Once you become more present, you get to learn the habits of your mind. We can get so caught up in our individual thoughts and feelings that we hardly notice our own mental patterns and reactions. That’s why mindfulness meditation increases understanding in ourselves and compassion for others.

How To Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation, in the strictest of forms, is simple: sit, relax, and pay attention to your body, breath, and environment. When your mind wanders, return to how you feel in the present. Part of mindfulness meditation is noticing how your mind wanders. Don’t try to alter, get rid of particular thoughts, or stop thinking altogether! Just simply observe them as they come up. If you get stuck on a thought, return back to your breath or immediate environment. Feel your breath as it runs through your nose, fills your chest, and releases.

However, mindfulness can be practiced in many other ways. You can practice it formally through mindfulness meditation, or find activities in your daily routine that allow you to focus on what you’re experiencing in the present moment. When you think of meditation, you probably imagine sitting alone in a quiet room, exploring your thoughts, but mindfulness can be practiced anywhere.

Here are a few methods of incorporating mindfulness meditation in your daily routine:

Yoga

Yoga combines the effect of exercise, breathing, mindfulness, and meditation all in one. To practice mindfulness while doing yoga, start by focusing on how your body feels as you stretch into each pose. Notice the movement in your breath and use it as an anchor when you become distracted. Pay attention to the sensations in your body, without judgment or expectations, but be aware of how you react. Do certain poses make you feel bored or frustrated? Notice when you feel more challenged or relaxed, but stay connected with your body and breathing.

Yoga is a great way to destress, while improving your strength and flexibility. Yoga increases circulation, improves your cardio and circulatory health, and helps you maintain better balance (physically and mentally). It also helps reduce blood pressure, chronic pain, and insomnia. Another benefit of yoga is that almost every yoga pose can be modified to account for the needs and abilities of each individual person.

Walking/Running

The positive effects of mindfulness don’t have to be achieved through meditation. There are many ways that you can integrate mindfulness into your everyday routine. Walking is a great meditative technique if you can learn to be mindful. Whether you’re reflecting on recent memories or planning ahead, it can be very easy to slip into autopilot while walking. Though our legs are moving in one direction, the mind is often thinking about something else altogether. However, we shouldn’t be so busy that we forget to experience life as it is. If you have a busy life, walking is the perfect form of mindfulness meditation because you can do it anywhere at anytime.

To practice mindful walking, you don’t have to change anything about the way you walk except for the direction your mind goes. Notice how your body feels: become aware of your posture and pay attention to how your feet touch the ground, notice the rhythm in your steps. Now take notice of each sense, one by one. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel in your body? What thoughts are coming to mind? Pay attention to your present environment, occasionally returning to how your body feels.

Notice how your mind wants to tell a story for each of your senses, or how everything you experience reminds you of somewhere, something, or someone. However, don’t focus on a feeling for too long, otherwise you will start to miss what’s around you. You don’t need to actually think about what you’re seeing; acknowledging it is enough. Be open to the world. When you notice your mind starting to wander off, return to your body. You can use your breath as a reminder.

Along with the benefits of mindfulness practice, walking increases the production of serotonin and dopamine — the happy hormones — in our bodies. It also helps decrease the amount of cortisol in your body, a stress hormone. Getting out of the house and into the sun will also help you get enough vitamin D, which improves calcium absorption, bone health, and boosts your immune system.

If you’re feeling up for it, running is also a great way to combine exercise and mindfulness.

Gardening

Gardening is stimulating to the mind in many ways and forces you to practice being present in the moment. Gardening is a great way to practice mindfulness because it engages all of the senses — smell, sight, sound, touch, and the special reward at the end: taste. Feel the soil in your hands and the sun on your skin. Look at each plant, follow the bees as they hop from flower to flower. Take a few moments to breathe deeply and take in all the smells. Listen to the birds, the buzzing, and steps of people walking by. Pay attention to the needs of various plants, and be keen to special details that will help your garden flourish.

Gardening has become known by doctors, psychologists, and researchers alike to have powerful effects on the body and mind. Along with the benefits that come with low impact exercise, gardening mindfully can help you reduce blood pressure, improve sleep, and keep your mind sharp.

Try Mindfully Being In Nature

No matter how busy our lives get, for some reason we always crave going back into nature. Being surrounded by nature helps us become more mindful of the present environment because it’s full of things that heighten our senses and leaves little room for distraction.

In fact, Japan even made “forest bathing” a part of their national public health program in 1982 to encourage healthier living in the city. The essential oils found in trees, plants, and wood in forests don’t just make the air smell nicer, they contain elements that help strengthen our mind and body.

Forest bathing, the act of being around trees, has been proven to reduce the production of stress hormones, lower blood pressure, improve working memory, boost the immune system, and improve your overall wellbeing. Several studies have found that forest bathing can help reduce depression and increase your sense of vitality; in other words, spending time in nature makes you feel more alive. In general, spending time in nature has been associated with improved emotion and mood regulation. Even if you live in the city, finding greenery and getting exposure to trees can significantly reduce stress levels.

Mindfulness Meditation Through Writing

Writing is a form of meditation we can all do and can work well for reflecting on our thoughts and inner monologue.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard of this exercise. If you’re not a writer, you don’t have to be! This form of mindfulness meditation can be great for people who find it difficult to do traditional meditative practices.

To practice mindful meditation through writing, simply take a few breaths, set a timer for 10 minutes, and write freely without stopping to reflect, edit, or make it a cohesive piece. Just relax your mind and keep writing without pausing to think about it. When the timer goes off, take a few more breaths and then scan through what you’ve written. Look for parts that interest you for whatever reason. Reflect on how the exercise benefited you or gave you new insight. It’s important to set positive intentions and keep up with the practice. It will be good for you and your brain, but it will also be great writing practice!

Health Benefits of Mindfulness

What kind of results can be seen with mindfulness meditation? Research has shown that it can help lower stress and regulate emotion, while improving our memory and focus.

Mind-body practices such as mindfulness meditation can help enhance the mind’s positive impact on the body. Over the years, many studies have proven that meditation can alter the stress response in our brains. Recent research by Harvard found that brain structures change after only eight weeks of mindful meditation practice. Other research has proven that it can increase the amount of gray matter in our brains. One study in particular found that mindfulness meditation can provide significant improvement to our cognitive thinking skills after only 4 days of 20 minutes of training per day. In general, meditation helps to train you to experience thoughts that provoke anxiety and create a different reaction which is positive and less harming to your mind and body.

By measuring brain activity, structure, and stress hormones, research has shown that meditation can reduce both physiological and emotional stress. You don’t need to designate time to sit and meditate for 20 minutes a day either. You can turn any daily activity into a meditation practice, whether it’s washing the dishes, brushing your teeth, folding laundry, or cooking. Just remember to focus on being connected with yourself. If your thoughts begin to wonder, just take a minute to focus on your breath. Breathing exercises help control the body’s reaction to stress and, in turn, activate the body’s relaxation response.

Be Proactive About Your Health

There are many things you can do to help manage your stress better. Dr. Bhandari, M.D. can help you make changes to your lifestyle to help reduce the stress you experience and how you respond to it. Along with other methods, Dr. Bhandari M.D. offers mindfulness meditation as a treatment for many chronic illnesses that relate to stress. Make an appointment today! It will change your life.

This article was originally published at sfadvancedhealth.com and republished here with the permission from Payal Bhandari MD.