What is Mindfulness?

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what is mindfulness

There is a lot of buzz about mindfulness, and for good reason. In a recent Psychology Today article Gregg Hendricks, Ph.D. wrote, “It is readily arguable that the single most significant development in mental health practice since the turn of the millennium has been the widespread emergence of mindfulness-based approaches.”

While there are critics that raise cautionary flags with respect to mindfulness being the panacea for all health ills – generally, more and more health experts agree, there are great breakthroughs to be had along with tangible perks, as a result.

We are a nation living in times that are crazy busy with little to no real downtime. We are increasingly barraged with distractions and study after study reports the ills on your health. Today, hospitals and health care centers across our country are increasingly using mindfulness practices, yoga, meditation, and guided imagery.

I, too, am taking more time for mindfulness. In the morning, while eating, and walking, and making sure to meditate and unplug — all to be present moment by moment. And along with patients, friends, family and millions of others that are discovering that mindfulness has its own rewards, I have seen firsthand the deep value and health benefits, mentally and physically.

Dr. Nina’s What You Need To Know: About Mindfulness

What is mindfulness? It is living in the moment, the act of being present. And again, although mindfulness has roots in Buddhism and other faith-based peace traditions, modern mindfulness is neither secular nor religious.

It means awareness of your thoughts, experiences and feelings as well as your senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch). It is “recovery time” – a break away from the day’s busyness — that will clear your mind of distractions and help you focus on living in the present. Too many times, we are “tasks ahead” or feeling the effects of stress. Cultivating mindfulness is mono-focus awareness in the moment, releasing other demands.

It involves engagement and accepting whatever you are experiencing in the moment– while nudging you to take better care of yourself, without judgement. In other words, there is no right or wrong way to think or feel, whether it is anxiety, joy, or sadness.

Effects: There is growing evidence suggesting that it reaps physical, psychological, and social benefits. We do not have all the answers as to how this occurs, but the primary reason is believed to be a decrease in our body’s stress response.

Research has shown that practicing mindfulness decreases activity and the size of a region of the brain—the amygdala—that determines how much stress we experience. In fact, the amygdala is more active in those who suffer from depression and anxiety.

And, too, mindfulness meditation increases the activity in an area of the brain that is responsible for regulating emotions, decision-making, planning, and abstract thinking—the prefrontal cortex.

Studies have linked mindfulness skills to a decrease in a number of stress-related illnesses:

  • Heart disease 
  • Blood pressure 
  • Cancer risk and recovery time   
  • Obesity and obesity-related diseases such as diabetes mellitus (reasoning is less likeliness to overeat or turn to food for comfort)
  • Infections due to immune system enhancement
  • Depression and anxiety–and may even play a role in treating it 
  • Chronic pain

These improvements have been shown with general wellness:

  • Cognitive function and memory 
  • Quality sleep 
  • Empathy, compassion, and altruism
  • Concentration and focus are sharpened because it helps “turn down the volume” on distractions
  • Relationships with others
  • School and work performance 

Practicing mindfulness. It is important to understand that like balanced eating, exercise, good sleep, and other healthy habits, this is not a one-time, short-term practice, or a fad. These choices are a commitment to being a healthy you and mindfulness is something that requires cultivation and repetition—throughout your day, throughout your week, and for a lifetime.

Experts have delineated several ways in which you can become more mindful — these are just a few:

  • Breathe. Take notice of the physical sensations: air entering our mouth or nose and traveling into our lungs and then back out again; the warmth or coolness of the air; whether it has a smell or scent; and how the diaphragm is involved and sometimes our tummies. And when thoughts distract you, acknowledge them, and redirect focus on your breathing.
  • Five senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Tune into them throughout the day. In fact, stop now to take notice of them as your eyes see the black print, as you sniff the scent or savor a sip of coffee, hear background noise, or the feeling of the paper on your fingertips, or gravity on your body. 
  • Meditation. Even if just for a minute or two, at first. A self-involved activity– ideally in a quiet spot—where you relax and focus on a breath, soft sounds or simply sit free from distractions. Remind yourself there is nothing to do, fix, or change. If your mind wanders, let go of the thoughts. Give thanks, think about people and times you are grateful for, and relax in the moment with the goodness. Read and think on a favorite verse, devotion, or passage. Think quietly. Breathe deeply by taking a long inhalation and then exhale. Set aim for at least 5-10 minutes a day.
  • Unplug. Take time with no phones, no computers, no emails – participating in other experiences.
  • “Beginner’s Mind” — taking notice of new things in what would otherwise be a rote or mundane activity—commuting to work, eating, being active—and bring life to them. Paying attention to your senses and emotions during these activities, discover something new or in a different light. Many things go unobserved or unseized. Make it a point to identify one new detail that you didn’t experience before and make it engaging.   
  • Walking meditation. By focusing on the movement of our body, step-by-step, we can experience a tremendous richness in an everyday activity. Become aware of how your feet feel when making contact with and touching the ground, how the muscles contract, and your posture as you move.   
  • Raisin exercise. This technique is a popular one to teach us how to engage all of our senses to observe what is essentially a dried out, shriveled grape in great detail. Experts teach us to feel it by holding it in the palm of our hand and rolling it between our fingers. And, too, to look at its folds and ridges, and smell it, chew it, taste it, and swallow it.    
  • Projects. No matter what you do in a day, putting aside distractions and focusing on your task at hand can help you be your very best. Being fully engaged, has been shown to improve creativity, productivity, and communication.
  • Eat mindfully. To truly enjoy your food, stop distractions (like emails, phone calls) and multi-tasking. Take the time to chew your food slowly, enjoy the textures, smells, and appearance of your food, and pay attention to your body’s cues. Doing so has been shown to help avoid overeating and help with digestion.

This list is not exhaustive – there are many ways to cultivate mindfulness skills (including free apps).    

The American Psychological Association cites mindfulness as a hopeful strategy for alleviating depression, anxiety, panic attacks, migraines and pain, underscoring, “it’s not just boosting mood and perception – the effects go deeper.” I believe that mindfulness is an important development in health care and pleased that it is attracting the attention it is. I further believe the benefits of mindfulness are enhanced when it is accompanied by healthy diet, quality sleep, being physically and mentally active, hydrated and taking steps to manage stress.

Practicing mindfulness has been compared to building a muscle–it takes repetition and time–but the benefits, physically and emotionally, are worth the investment. According to Trudy Goodman, the founder of InsightLA, doing so “builds the strength to endure moments that we might not have any choice about enduring.”

By engaging in the world, and the moment, it can help us understand our experience. We become kinder, gentler, and more patient with ourselves. And, too, we become more compassionate in the way we deal with others.

Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures. 

She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.

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