In the dark days of winter, moods tend to plummet right along with the hours of daylight. For many, the holidays amplify loneliness, depression, stress, and even health issues. Before you turn to pharmaceuticals to ease whatever ails you, consider the health benefits mindfulness practices can offer.
Research supporting the benefits of mindfulness practices for emotional and physical health continues to inundate scientific journals and news outlets alike. Focused on creating an awareness of the present moment, mindfulness practices come in countless shapes and forms dating back over 2,500 years. Some of you may dismiss mindfulness as “not my thing,” yet most of you love good science. So hear us out – mindfulness practices have been proven to decrease over-active inflammatory genes, lower the risk of cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s disease, bolster creativity and compassion and more.
A few recent studies in particular caught our attention. Ready for a crash-course in the boundless benefits of simply becoming more mindful?
Meditation Alters Gene Expression
For the first known time, a study by researchers in France, Spain, and Wisconsin uncovered that meditation practices may lead to rapid molecular changes in the body. The study compared a group of subjects who engaged in quiet, non-meditative activities for eight hours with a group of experienced practitioners who spent eight hours in meditation. The meditation group demonstrated altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and lowered expression of pro-inflammatory genes. Additionally, lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels were observed in the meditation group.
Fast fact: Did you know that cortisol depletes glutamine stores, which are crucial to healthy intestines, muscles, brain function, and detoxification of ammonia? Meditation can help preserve your glutamine stores as well as healthy gene structure.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the study is that positive gene changes were found in genes targeted by anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs. While mindfulness practices have long helped people with inflammatory disorders, these findings show the biological mechanism for treating such disorders.
The Absolute Antidote to Loneliness
Have you ever thought of loneliness as a risk factor for health problems? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated that for older adults, loneliness is associated with several health problems, including cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. The study tracked 40 adults ages 55-85 as they underwent an eight-week mindfulness program comprised of weekly two-hour meetings and a daily half-hour practice that focused on learning body and breath awareness and acknowledging emotions.
By studying blood samples, researchers found that mindfulness practices reduced pro-inflammatory gene expression in subjects’ immune cells as well as levels of C-reactive protein, which increases with inflammation. The takeaway? Psychological intervention holds great promise for regulating gene expression involved in inflammatory disorders.
Boost Creativity by Being Conscious
It’s not just your physical health that can benefit from mindfulness techniques – your ability to tap into creativity may increase from simply becoming more aware. A recent study measured divergent thinking (coming up with many uses for a single object) and convergent thinking (coming up with one solution to a problem) after subjects participated in various meditation exercises. After an open monitoring meditation in which subjects are receptive to all thoughts that enter their minds, participants performed better in divergent thinking, generating more creative ideas than the control group.
Meditation Makes You More Compassionate
Another study by researchers at Northwestern University and Harvard University uncovered that mindfulness practices made subjects more compassionate toward others. The study observed participants’ reactions as a visibly injured actor on crutches entered a waiting room with chairs occupied by actors purposely ignoring the hurt person’s presence. Among the non-meditating group, only about 15% of subjects offered their chair to the injured actor, while a remarkable 50% of the meditating group willingly gave up their seat. Not only did the meditating group choose to assist the person in pain, they did so against the social norm creating by actors purposely ignoring the injured actor.
Picking the Right Practice
The science is in, folks: It’s no longer a question of if mindfulness practices can help you, but how.
In order to reap the therapeutic benefits of a mindfulness technique, it’s important to choose a practice that truly resonates with you and is tailored for your specific needs.
Jon Kabat-Zinn has been teaching and writing about awareness strategies for over 20 years, and his success stems from his ability to resonate with everyone from hospital patients to prisoners. For Zinn, healing is about coming to terms with how things are rather than focusing on negative feelings that cloud the mind.
For an introduction to mindfulness-based stress reduction for any ailment, emotional, or physical, browse these resources:
Continue reading for information and resources about specialized mindfulness practices for weight loss, chronic pain, cancer patients, job-related stress, depression, and more. Compare different mindfulness techniques to unearth a practice you’ll want to sustain.
Mindfulness for Weight Loss
These days, the dieting world is convoluted by “get thin quick” schemes with eating restrictions that seem to be conjured out of thin air. Some mindfulness practices, which date back over 2,500 years, are designed to ameliorate specific health problems including weight loss. For many, weight loss can be as simple as changing eating patterns. Often, it’s not just about what you eat, but how you eat it.
Mindful eating is grounded foremost in observation (of the textures, smells, colors, shapes, and flavors of your food) and turning off distractions (like the television, eating while driving, or multi-tasking). By slowing down and chewing food fully, you allow the body to begin digesting while you are eating. The result? Hormonal signalsbetween the brain and belly fire off, alerting you to fullness before you over-eat.
To start eating mindfully, try these tips:
- Take small bites and chew completely.
- Eat with your non-dominant hand or use chopsticks to slow you down.
- Take 20 minutes to eat a meal.
- Before snacking, evaluate whether or not you’re actually hungry.
- Make breakfast your biggest meal.
Studies continue to place mindful eating among the most powerful weight loss strategies. It’s not just about being mindful of what’s on your plate, but also of the feelings that accompany your weight management issues. Feelings of anger or anxiety lead to binge eating or unhealthy choices for many. By recognizing the connection between feelings and food, you can positively alter your relationship to what’s on your plate.
Additionally, heightened cortisol (stress hormone) levels have been linked to increased intake of sugary, fattening foods in addition to elevated risk of obesity. When we become less reactive and more emotionally stable, our minds open up to good choices.
Mindfulness for Chronic Pain
When it comes to a serious illness, it’s difficult to stay positive and not be defeated by sickness setbacks. Learning to have a positive relationship with your condition rather than resisting it can help you focus on the good. When dealing with chronic pain patients, mindfulness teachers highlight the importance of being in tune with the experience at hand, rather than attempting to shut it out. By focusing on the intricacies of what is going on in your thoughts, immediate sensations (like physical pain) become less pronounced.
Neural scans show mindfulness practices actually soothe the brain’s pain response signals and support immune function. Researchers also suggest that inflammation, which plays a role in many chronic diseases, is correlated with stress. One study ofthe effect of meditation on psoriasis, a skin disease, found that individuals who meditated while receiving ultraviolet light therapy experienced clearer skin four times faster than those who received UV therapy without meditating.
For chronic pain, body scans are an especially effective mindfulness technique because they invite you to observe how you are physically feeling and choose a positive emotional response. Click here for three-, five-, and ten-minute instructional body scan videos. Engaging in a healthy distraction like reading a book, playing a game, conjuring beautiful imagery, or having a positive conversation with a friend is another efficient strategy for taking your focus off of pain.
Mindfulness for Cancer Patients
Cancer is a beast of a different nature when it comes to chronic pain and anxiety. Because we have yet to discover a cure, a cancer diagnosis is one of the most stressful, heartbreaking experiences a person (and their loved ones) can endure. And stress, as we know, only makes health problems worse. Anxiety and stress are even thought to impact cancer growth.
Mindfulness strategies can not only help a cancer patient deal with the stress and anxiety of being diagnosed, but can also improve the effectiveness of treatments as well. A 2012 study out of Ohio University found that HSF-1, a protein released during stress, plays a role in chemo-related heart damage. Additionally, another recent study published in the Journal of Cancer Nursing found that mindfulness practices improved sleep patterns, soothed anxiety, decreased physical pain, and boosted energy in cancer patients.
Instead of jumping to a “worst-case scenario” state of mind, mindfulness can help ground you in the present and remind you of what is true. Instead of struggling against reality, you can learn to shift your focus to positive, affirmative thoughts and respond thoughtfully to your situation.
Click here to learn how Elana Rosenbaum, a celebrated psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher, used her own strategies to cope with an unexpected cancer diagnosis.
Mindfulness for Anxiety & Depression
Mindfulness practices are increasingly becoming a mainstream treatment for depression and anxiety. A recent study from the University of Exeter determinedmindfulness-based cognitive therapy a better treatment for depression than anti-depressant drugs or psychotherapy. Additionally, 75% of study participants stopped taking their anti-depression drugs altogether after receiving mindfulness training.
Mindfulness has yielded positive results in school programs as well. Researchers observed 408 children from five different schools in Belgium before and after they attended a mindfulness training session in which they learned mindful breathing, body scans, group reflection and storytelling, and self-care education. Students who completed the program demonstrated improvement in stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms both immediately and six months after the training.
Reflection is an extremely important element of mindfulness teachings for those coping with depression. Patients learn how to notice their thinking patterns and refrain from reacting with anger, anxiety, or avoidance. Two strategies for learning to respond are practicing self-compassion and developing a written action plan containing steps to take when feelings of depression or anxiety arise. Accepting imperfections allows the individual to move forward without the weight of anxious or self-loathing thoughts.
Mindfulness for Job-Related Stress
The key to using mindfulness practices to offset stress lies in changing your perception of the event causing anxiety. Over 50% of the workforce says that job-related stress is a major issue in the United States. In addition to working 12-hour work days or 80-hour works weeks, workers must cope with the stress of future projects, reprimands from nasty bosses, and even anxiety created by positive changes such as a promotion. Hugely successful companies including Apple, Yahoo, Google, Proctor and Gamble, and the LA Lakers have implemented hugely successful mindfulness programs for their employees. Coincidence? We think not.
For improved clarity of mind, less reactivity, and better decision-making ability, implement these mindfulness strategies into your workday:
- As you walk into work, breathe in and out slowly for three seconds each. Do the same as you leave work in the evening.
- Eat your lunch meticulously and in silence at least once per week. Turn off all connection to the outside world and resist the urge to multi-task while you notice the colors, textures, and flavors of your meal.
- In a particularly stressful moment, try the S.T.O.P technique: STOP, TAKE a break, OPEN up, soften, and observe, and PROCEED.
Mindfulness for Caregivers
The intense stress, anxiety, and exhaustion that come with being a caregiver are often (sadly) overlooked. Studies show that for nurses, doctors, and home caregivers alike, mindfulness practices can reduce burnout, increase empathy, and help fight exhaustion. The benefits don’t stop there – evidence indicates compassionate caregivers are more successful at reducing the duration of colds and improving immune response in their patients! Imagine that – seems Patch Adams’ medical style wasn’t so curious after all.
All too often, traditional medical training ignores the importance of compassion, causing caregivers to become immune to the emotional needs of patients. Mindfulness practices can help caregivers maintain empathy for their patients, guard against emotional withdrawal, and help family members cope with feelings of helplessness.
Relaxation Techniques That Really Work
Though people diverge on background, profession, religion, politics, and even sports teams, we can unite in the struggle to cope with the stresses of life. At the center of all mindfulness practices, the individual learns to notice moment-by-moment processes and stress and choose how to respond. We hope these resources help guide you on a journey toward a happier, healthier, more mindful existence.