Mindfulness is a term that seems to get thrown around a lot these days. One of the most popular definitions of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Others may view mindfulness as synonymous with meditation, a practice of clearing the mind and focusing on the sensation of breathing.
Regardless of the exact definition of mindfulness, most people associate the term with calmness, a respite from the hassles of day-to-day living, and a chance to honor and care for oneself. Mindfulness, however, differs fundamentally from other forms of self-care that may seem indulgent. Being mindful isn’t about feeling good, necessarily. In a sense, mindfulness is about living more fully, being present rather than absent, and accepting the aspects of our environments over which we have no control.
The compelling thing about mindfulness is the very thing that may also repel people who feel they don’t need it. Mindfulness is about realizing and accepting things that all of us fundamentally know already. No one experiencing frustration as they sit in traffic sincerely believes that their anger will help them reach their destination faster. No one stressing about something that’s happened in the past genuinely thinks that their anxiety will bring a sense of relief. Training your brain to focus on the present and become more aware of itself can help us release some of the emotions that don’t serve us, focusing instead on the things we do have power over, like how we respond to frustration or our ability to let go of destructive thoughts.
Most people who practice mindfulness claim that they become happier and more fulfilled as a result. It’s not too surprising that taking some time to quiet down, breathe deeply and become aware of yourself might have a mood boosting effect, but we now know that mindfulness practices can have far more wide-reaching benefits.
But first, let’s take a look at some figures that shine light on why we need mindfulness:
- According to the American Institute of Stress, chronic stress increases the risk of heart disease by 40 percent, the risk of a heart attack by 25 percent and the risk of stroke by 50 percent.
- A report by the World Health Organization states that U.S. businesses lose an estimated $300 billion per year on work-related stress. That comprises employee absenteeism, turnover and productivity levels.
- Chronic stress has been shown to make people more susceptible to frequent and severe viral infections.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 2009 and 2012, 7.6 percent of Americans aged 12 and over had experienced moderate to severe depressive symptoms within two weeks of being surveyed. Depression is most common among women, people aged 40 to 59, and people living below the poverty level.
- A report published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2015 states that major depressive disorder (MDD) costs Americans an estimated total of $210.5 billion annually, including direct costs, suicide-related costs and workplace costs
Okay, we get it. Stress and depression are serious issues with actual, real-world consequences. How does mindfulness fit in?
- A 2013 study by the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain found that mindfulness practices, such as observing the breath, observing inner thoughts and cultivating compassionate mental states, were associated with lower levels of cortisol, the hormone linked to stress.
- Researchers at the University of Oregon used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to detect changes in the brain after participants practiced integrative body-mind training, a Chinese meditation technique. After around 11 hours of meditation spread out over the course of a month, participants had an increase in brain signaling connections, known as axonal density, as well as an increase in myelin, a protective tissue, in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain associated with self-regulation. Deficiencies in this region of the brain have been linked to attention deficit, depression, dementia, schizophrenia and other disorders.
- Meditation can aid in the formation of nitric oxide, which opens up blood vessels and, in turn, lowers blood pressure.
- Businesses that have incorporated mindfulness into their workplace have benefited financially. After Aetna’s employees were offered yoga and mindfulness courses at work, they reported an average of 28 percent stress reduction, 20 percent improvement in sleep quality, 19 percent reduction in physical pain and gained an average of 62 minutes per week in productivity, amounting to around $3,000 per employee per year. The annual healthcare costs of employees who participated in the program were also $2,000 lower on average than those who didn’t.
And that’s not all. There is research that suggests that regular mindfulness practices can slow the aging process, improve decision-making, attention and memory, improve students’ test performances, decrease feelings of loneliness among the elderly, make doctors better at their jobs and improve emotional processing.
If it sounds too good to be true, keep in mind that all of these purported benefits come as a result of two things: The first is that meditation is essentially a method of training the brain. While not technically a muscle, aspects of the brain behave very similarly to muscles, and synaptic networks get stronger and better at functioning the more you use them. Therefore, it’s only logical that teaching your brain to focus, self-regulate and become more aware of itself and your surroundings will result in an improvement in attention span, regulating your emotions and stress-management.
The second is that taking some time to sit still each day and focus on your breath, your body or your environment functions as a relaxation exercise. Relaxation techniques have long been accepted as effective methods of stress reduction, which can improve cardiovascular health and blood pressure, as well as, of course, just plain happiness.
If you’ve never practiced meditation or mindfulness, we recommend taking just five minutes of your day and trying it out. You can visit our Practice Now page to stream or download audios designed to guide you through a meditation process, or you can simply sit somewhere comfortable, close your eyes and focus on your breath.
It’s free, it’s simple and anyone can do it with just five minutes. Illumination Institute isn’t here to sell you products or expensive services. We just want to support a vision for a better world.