The purpose of this blog is to give readers some perspective on the range of factors at play when thinking and reading about health issues presented in the media. But with this, I want to also take opportunities to provide you with some ways to take control over your own health. There is often the misconception that you have to have money to be happy, or fit, or to eat healthy. As I mentioned last week there is this *correlation* (remember correlation vs causation?) between low SES and obesity and poorer health, which indeed is a contributing factor (see last weeks post for more on this). But more often, it is not so much the lack of money, but the lack of knowledge of how to increase your health with limited resources. It is possible!! There are obviously exceptions, as many health conditions do warrant medical attention -in which case you should seek medical assistance – but there is SO much you can do on your own, in terms of promoting life-long health through preventative measures. This week I want to talk about the topic of mindfulness and meditation in this context. Have you encountered the topic of Mindfulness? Is it a topic that is covered in mainstream media?
Physical & Mental Well-Being
The first article I’ll cover, is based on a Buddhist health study that was done at Northern Arizona University (NAU), which looked at the benefits of mindfulness training on individuals’ physical and mental well-being. This study surveyed 866 Buddhist practitioners from all around the globe, and what they found was the ability to focus and calm your mind makes a large difference in your well-being.
5 key health benefits:
- Strengthened immune system and physiological responses to stress and negativity
- Improved social relationships (both in family and strangers)
- Reduced stress, depression, anxiety, and increase well-being and happiness
- Increased openness to experiences
- Led to greater psychological mindfulness which included clear, flexible awareness, a practical stance toward reality, and heightened attention.
Be the change you want to see in the world. Mindful practices have been correlated with positive alterations in neural patterns in parts of the brain associated with sensory processing and empathetic response (thanks to neuroplasticity!!). “’The Buddhist ideals are that whatever you practice, that is what you are becoming, so if you practice being angry and shouting and so forth, you become very accomplished in doing that,’ states Sullivan (PhD in Religious Studies). ‘On the other hand, if you practice loving kindness, compassion and so forth, you are making yourself into that type of person.’ Thus achieving better physical well-being or psychological health comes from sharpening the mind to focus and be more successfully aware.” The conclusions of this study were that the conscious ability to transform your mind is perhaps the greatest ability we have as humans to shape the direction of our lives and positively affect those around us. Pretty cool that we all possess that potential, right?
Open your mind. You may be thinking, “That’s nice. I’m not a Buddhist practitioner.” That’s fine! You don’t have to be to reap the health benefits of mindful meditation. (Benefits include: reduced stress, risk of various disease, improved well-being, and a rewired brain.) You don’t even have to believe in Buddhism or practice Buddhism to practice mindfulness. To meditate mindfully, all you have to have is your breath. And if you’re reading this, you’ve got breath! You must be open and receptive, non-judgmental to your present-moment experience. You can mindfully eat, mindfully walk, you can mindfully meditate for deeper sleep, mindfully breathe to help energize yourself – all the things.
A mindful brain is a fresh brain. A study published in the New York Times, looked at the benefits of meditation in a control and experimental group of unemployed, stressed individuals looking for employment. The experimental group did a mindful retreat where they learned mindful practices and techniques, while the control group also did a retreat, but it focused on stretching and was more of a social gathering. The researchers collected blood and brain scans before and after the retreat, and again four months later. The mindful group reported feeling refreshed and better able to withstand their stresses. Not to mention, their brains had more activity and connections in the parts of the brain that connect stress reactions to focus and calming areas. And even cooler — four months after the retreat, even though most people had not continued meditating, their bloodwork showed lowered levels of inflammation compared to the control group!
Mediate yourself to better sleep. Meditation also happens to be great for your sleep health. Your sleep quality is linked to an insane amount of bodily functioning (pretty much all of it…cognition, energy, focus, performance, not to mention the array of diseases that are correlated with or exacerbated by poor sleep). The New York Times also featured an an article by the JAMA Internal Medicine Network. They conducted a study that examined the effects of meditation in older adults with sleep problems. Those that practiced mindfulness had fewer symptoms of insomnia, depression, and fatigue. Mindfulness was identified as a sleep aid to promote improved sleep quality without the side effects of sleep medication.
Read about it here: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/23/meditation-for-a-good-nights-sleep/
The hardest part of all of this, is actually training yourself to be mindful. I’ve been attending a class to mindfully manage stress, and the biggest thing is that you have to be patient with yourself!! Because as simple as it sounds, sitting for even ten minutes, guided by your breath and simply being aware of the present moment is very hard. Not thinking about what you’re going to be eating for dinner, or what you think you should be doing right now, or what is going to happen tomorrow; thinking about your body in space and your surroundings in the present moment, is pretty difficult. I’ve found a free app, it is called Insight Timer which has a ton of guided meditations for almost any situation. It really has helped me to have another voice guiding me, rather than relying solely on myself to keep focus. I encourage you to try it, and see how you feel!
Here are some links to resources for free guided mindfulness practices:
Insight Timer: Guided practice https://insighttimer.com
Simply Being: Guided practice for relaxation and presence https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/simply-being-guided-meditation/id347418999?mt=8
Headspace: Meditation for modern living http://www.getsomeheadspace.com
MINDBODY Connect: Live healthier and happier https://www.mindbodyonline.com/connet
Omvana: the world’s best transformational audios for meditation, sleep, relaxation, productivity, focus & inspiration http://www.omvana.com
Web-based Mindfulness Guide Meditation Podcasts: http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22