Mindfulness is a word that is hard to escape these days. But what exactly is it and how does it improve our wellbeing and make us happier? Well it turns out there is a science behind it and how it changes our mood, health and brains for the better.
Mindfulness is all about focusing your awareness on the present moment and tuning into what you are feeling and what is happening around you right now – not rehashing the argument from last week or mentally planning your work presentation for tomorrow. Mindful breathing, for instance, is one way to refocus your mind on the present and recalibrate yourself to the now.
Research states that the benefits to mindfulness are plenty – reduction in anxiety and depression, decrease in negative thinking, improved concentration, and pain relief. And mindfulness doesn’t just help adults, research has been done on the benefits it has for kids such as improving attention, regulating emotions, increasing compassion and empathy, and reducing anxiety. For times like the ones we’re in, where there is a frustrating lack of information, where you are homeschooling while working from home, or not working at all anymore, the biggest benefit of all to mindfulness can be stress relief.
When humans experience stress, it activates the sympathetic nervous system causing an elevated heart rate, nervousness, difficulty breathing and the general “fight or flight” response. This system your body has set up works great for immediate danger, think jumping out of the way of oncoming traffic. And it worked great for our earliest ancestors who needed a warning system in their body to avoid being eaten while they were hunting. But when stress, like the kind we all experience in the modern world happens, the kind that is more relentless than immediate, the system has no time to shut down. The “fight or flight” response is always on and ready to spring into action, even when there is no immediate danger – this is where mindfulness helps.
“Mindfulness of the breath helps us have an anchor for the present moment, because our minds are usually running off, worrying about the future, or regretting something that we did in the past,” says Judson Brewer MD, PhD, Director of Research and Innovation, at the Brown University Mindfulness Center. A study in Scientific Reports dives deeper. In the study, fourteen university students participated in a 40-day meditation training course. After the mindfulness training, imaging techniques revealed changes in the regions of the brain that play critical roles in the perception of one’s own emotional state, understanding others’ thoughts and emotions, and moral reasoning. In addition, they experienced reduction in both depression and anxiety that correlated directly to these changes in the brain.
Practicing mindfulness can be formal, like setting aside time in a quiet space and breathing along with a guided meditation. But mindfulness can also be part of everyday chores. Next time you are cooking, pay closer attention to the sights and smells. Or the next time you are sitting quietly, take notice of your breath. Mindfulness, for all its benefits, is simply centered on being aware of the present. It takes practice, minds like to race. But there has never been a more appropriate time to change our brain for the better.