The word “mindfulness”—that is, being aware and consciously present—is making its way into conversations everywhere lately.Medical schools and law schools are training up-and-coming doctors to use mindfulness to manage stress, the military is teaching troops how to lower stress levels through mindfulness and meditation, grammar and high school teachers are incorporating mindfulness into curricula and the list goes on.
While the practice, which sprung from Buddhist philosophy, sounds new-agey, it’s a concept with health benefits backed by science. Across the country, mindfulness specialists are teaching people the ropes of meditation to improve focus (UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center offers free guided meditations here).
First, some examples of what mindfulness isn’t. Think about the last time you drove from your house to the office, only to realize, once you got there, you hardly remember any part of the drive. Or that lunch you ate so quickly you didn’t even taste it. Or that time when your spouse was telling you a story, but you were too busy thinking about what to make for dinner to listen. Mindfulness means being fully present in each of those moments—being aware of how we think, how we feel and what’s happening inside of us and around us.
Mindfulness made its way into the realm of psychology in the 1970s, when Jon Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (see a quick video on mindfulness). MBSR is now used to help treat anxiety, depression, fatigue, pain and other health challenges (see the U Mass site for areas it targets). The idea of mindfulness is to focus on the present moment—i.e. being aware and present—rather than looking to the past or future. That can involve concentrating on the way you breathe, the way you stand, the food you’re eating or other areas. Ellen Lager, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and founder of the Langer Mindfulness Institute, summed up mindfulness like this in the Harvard Business Review: “It is the very simple process of noticing new things, which puts us in the present and makes us more sensitive to context and perspective. It is the essence of engagement.”
Here are some reasons to think about incorporating mindfulness into your life today:
MINDFULNESS MAY HELP IMPROVE MEMORY.
A study by the psychology department at the University of Cincinnati, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that adolescents who were trained in mindfulness meditation showed improved memory scores, even in the short term.
MEDITATION—A PART OF MBSR—MAY ACTUALLY CHANGE THE COMPOSITION OF YOUR BRAIN.
A study published in Psychiatry Research analyzed the brains of 16 participants new to meditation as they underwent training in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. The results showed actual changes to the brain that could be related to improved memory, controlling emotions, awareness and more.
MINDFULNESS MEDITATION MAY IMPROVE WELLBEING.
Researchers with the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) analyzed 47 clinical trials with more than 3,500 participants and found that mindfulness meditation programs may help reduce stress and anxiety, depression and pain.
IT MAY IMPROVE YOUR MOOD.
Researchers at University of Rochester Medical Center found that medical practitioners who were engaged in mindful practices showed a decrease in negative moods. In the same study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that those medical professionals communicated with more empathy.
Want to learn more about how to be mindful? Here’s a three-minute breathing exercise video by Jefferson University Hospitals to get started.
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