In our fast-paced world, it is more important than ever to find time to unwind and relax explains Alex Gierbolini. In today’s society as a whole, we are constantly surrounded by stress and overwhelming demands. If left unchecked, chronic stress can lead to anxiety and depression and has been known to increase risk of heart disease (American Heart Association). The key is striking a balance between work, home life, and yourself.
The science behind managing chronic stress
Alex Gierbolini says managing chronic stress is not just about stepping away from your busy day-to-day routine; it’s also about addressing the internal factors that contribute to the way you feel. As discussed below, mindfulness meditation has been shown to be an effective tool in achieving this goal. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), mindfulness – defined as maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of one’s thoughts feelings and sensations – “leads to reduced emotional reactivity, more positive attitudes, increased empathy and patience toward others, increased awareness of the present moment, decreased anxiety.”
The NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) also notes that researchers have found mindfulness meditation to decrease distress among people with chronic illnesses. Mindfulness has been shown to increase immune system functioning by lowering levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines involved in many diseases while increasing antibody response among patients who had the flu vaccination. Not only is there growing evidence that mindfulness can be used as a treatment for medical illness but it may even reduce the rate of relapse in substance abuse disorder. For example, cocaine addicts participating in an eight-week mindfulness training program continued to report significantly less drug use than those in a control group three months after the program.
What is mindfulness meditation and how does it work?
- Mindfulness meditation is just one of many varieties of techniques which aim to help people cope with stress. There is no specific guideline for mindfulness meditation, but there are some key principles that instructors attempt to teach their students. These include being aware of your body, breath, feelings, thoughts and surroundings without judgment or criticism. This creates space between you and your experiences so you can learn about yourself without getting caught up in painful emotions or past incidents.
- Not all mindfulness exercises involve meditating on a cushion. For example, walking and eating can be opportunities to practice becoming fully engaged in the present moment while allowing thoughts and other distractions to pass without judgment.
What do the experts say about mindfulness meditation?
- One study found that, in comparison to the control group, the people who participated in an eight-week mindfulness course experienced a decrease in stress levels and an increase in self-esteem (Lavender). A second study by Rush University Medical Center suggests that meditation may also be “a way to reduce some of the brain changes linked with Alzheimer’s disease.” The researchers scanned participants’ brains before and after they participated in an eight-week course and found lower levels of amyloid and tau proteins which are associated with Alzheimer’s (Qin).
- The benefits don’t stop at improved mental health; there is also evidence suggesting that mindfulness can improve physical health. One review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that mindfulness improved fitness and reduced blood pressure (Peters). Other research has shown that mindfulness can reduce pain among cancer patients (Jain) and successfully help people stop smoking (Covey).
- Finally, scientists at Johns Hopkins Medical Center have found that mindfulness meditation may actually change brain structure. Participants who went through eight weeks of mindfulness training demonstrated physical changes in their brains. The research showed “increased thickness in the parts of the cerebral cortex that handle information processing, attention and emotional integration.” These regions control our ability to interact with others, stay focused on tasks, learn new skills, regulate our emotions and make decisions.
Conclusion by Alex Gierbolini:
There is no shortage of research suggesting that mindfulness can improve your mental, physical and social well-being. Studies have demonstrated the power of mindfulness to reduce stress, boost memory among adults with mild cognitive impairment, lower risk for psychological disorders, improve attention span and even boost immune system functioning. Additionally mindfulness has been shown to be successful in treating chronic pain, reducing blood pressure and improving fitness levels.