Staying Healthy With Mindfulness
How living in the moment can lead to better health
Illustration by Gloria Diianni
We live in an era of nonstop stimulation, when information and tempting distractions foist themselves upon us at every opportunity. Staying on task can be a pretty tall order when you know that something potentially interesting and easier on your brain is just a click away.
As if wreaking havoc with our productivity isn’t bad enough, a plugged-in lifestyle can also take a toll on our health. “There are numerous studies now that have shown the negative impacts of electronics on our physical and emotional health,” says Matthew M. Hand, DO, a pediatric nephrologist and integrative medicine specialist at Elliot Hospital. “I don’t think this is even really up for questioning anymore — the effects that [heavy electronics use] has on depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorder,” Hand says. “Those of us who practice, we know that this happens — we see it every day.”
One way to counteract the effects of a typical 21st-century existence is to live more mindfully. Mindfulness means being mentally present in the moment and the environment you are in at any given time. Unfortunately, being mindful does not come naturally for most of us. Within a mere minute or two, our thoughts can nimbly jump hither and yon, from today’s to-do list, to wondering what to make for dinner, worrying about an upcoming meeting and realizing we’re overdue for a checkup at the dentist.
“The reality is, our mind is rarely in the moment,” Hand says. “[It] is rarely in the moment and in the now, aware of the sights and sounds, and how our body feels and why our body feels a certain way. What we smell, what we sense — mindfulness is being aware of all of those things.”
The concept of mindfulness dates back thousands of years, but it has seen a resurgence in recent times, possibly due to concerns surrounding the ubiquitous electronics in our lives. Today’s researchers have proven that mindfulness can reduce stress hormone levels, and that regular practice of mindfulness can even physically alter the brain by shrinking the amygdala, a part of the brain related to emotional processing and the “fight-or-flight” response, while thickening the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with higher thinking and reasoning.
“There are true physiologic changes that can happen when people learn to deal with a stressful situation in a different way than they used to,” says Mary A. Danca, MD, an OB/GYN at Concord Hospital Family Health Center. “No one can erase the stress from your life, but you can learn to approach it differently.” Mindfulness enables you to “see stress for what it is,” Danca says, and betters the chance that rather than reacting to stress in your habitual way, you will consider more measured and thoughtful responses.
As an example, Danca says, let’s say you’re in a hurry and stuck in a long line at the bank, and just as your turn is drawing near, a patron in front of you — who clearly is not in a rush — plops a bag of pennies on the counter and starts to chat with the teller. You feel your aggravation increase from a simmer to a boil, but mindfulness can help you recognize your reaction to the stress, and remind you to breathe deeply, calm down and consider your options, such as leaving the bank to complete other errands rather than continuing to stand by, frustrated and angry, while your stress hormones run amok.
With mindfulness training, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t just increase in size, it can become more active, Danca explains, and is “what we turn to first instead of just using the immediate fight-or-flight part of the brain.” So calming ourselves in situations like the one at the bank might come a bit more easily.
But being mindful doesn’t just help us feel better and perhaps make us more pleasant to be around, it benefits us physically by reducing our risk of disease. Stress triggers inflammation in the body, and contributes to “the vast majority” of acute and chronic illnesses, Hand says, including heart disease, panic attacks, headaches, abdominal pain, rheumatological conditions and diabetes. “Mindfulness-based training lowers that stress response,” Hand says, “and if you lower the stress response, you can lower the inflammatory response, and the two together lead to an overall improvement in most conditions.” Not only does mindfulness help alleviate many health problems, such as high blood pressure, stress, inflammation, anxiety and chronic pain, “importantly,” Hand says, “it improves your overall quality of life.”
“I have rarely seen a patient who didn’t benefit from some kind of mindfulness or mind-body therapy,” Hand says. But it takes practice. The best approach for beginners, he says, is to gradually work up to a mindfulness practice session of 10 minutes per day. How you choose to be mindful is up to you; whether you meditate for 10 minutes, do yoga, tai chi or gentle walking with breathing, if you are mindful while you do it, “you will start seeing the benefit,” Hand says. “But it can take two to eight weeks to see a response, so you have to be patient.”
In case you’re wondering, Hand and Danca don’t just talk the talk — each regularly practices mindfulness. Danca says her ability to be mindful benefits her patients as well as herself. When she goes into an exam room with a patient, “they can feel that I’m there with them,” she says. “I’m not back with the patient I saw before them or worried about the person I’m going to see after them or [wondering if I am] going to get to lunch on time. When I can bring my full presence to the exam room with that patient, that’s where the gold is for me.”
How do I do it?
The Buddhists of ancient times might not have envisioned this (then again, who knows), but today’s approaches to mindfulness via yoga run the gamut, from gentle yoga to athletic yoga and yoga with beer. Somewhat ironically, you can even enlist mindfulness help from electronic reminders and programs.
Some of the newer twists on yoga, such as laughing yoga or moving through yoga poses while bunnies or baby goats hop nearby (or on your back) sound great for relieving stress, but some question how effective they are as paths to mindfulness. Certainly such approaches are a world away from what we think of as traditional, quiet meditation.
“But you can make any activity mindful,” says Mary A. Danca, MD, an OB/GYN at Concord Hospital Family Health Center. “You can make brushing your teeth mindful. It’s a matter of focusing on what’s happening right now. If you can just focus on the feeling and the fun and the laughter of having the goat on you, that’s fine. If you’re so excited about it, you feel you’ve got to text your friend … then you’re kind of losing focus.”
Regardless of the specific method you use to practice mindfulness, give yourself time to get the hang of intently focusing the brain. “Everybody gets a little frustrated because they think they have to sit and meditate for 20 minutes,” says Matthew M. Hand, DO, a pediatric nephrologist and integrative medicine specialist at Elliot Hospital, “and quite honestly, for most people, that’s, if not impossible, really hard to do.” Beginners might want to start, Hand says, with a daily three-minute mindfulness session, gradually increasing to 10 minutes of mindfulness practice per day.
Helpfully, many of the available apps that can guide you through mindfulness practice are designed so that users don’t have to commit to long mindfulness sessions if they don’t want to. “They help teach you how to meditate in very short little chunks,” Danca says. “You don’t have to be a yogi on a mountain for hours and hours of meditation to get a benefit.”
With practice, mindfulness can become a habit that stays with you throughout each day. If that seems like an impossible goal, remember that “we know how to be mindful,” Danca says. “I’ll bet you have a hobby or a liking or a child or a pet that you can be completely there for at times when you are nowhere else [mentally] but with that activity or that person. That’s mindfulness.