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Neal Pire, MA, CHC, EP-C, CSCS, FACSM

National Director of Wellness Services, Castle Connolly Private Health Partners

Unplugging from an increasingly connected world and unwinding from the stressors of daily life are difficult when so many important facets of our lives require our undivided attention. Many Americans report feeling most stressed about work, family, health, and the economy, which can lead to unsafe levels of stress. Clinical evidence shows that consistently high stress levels can negatively impact our health and can lead to decreased productivity in the workplace. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, only 17% of Americans say they discuss stress management with their healthcare providers.1 Striking a balance is hard, but finding ways to manage stress can significantly mitigate its harmful effects. One such way is by practicing mindfulness, which has recently captured the attention of bloggers, journalists, corporations, and scientists, alike.

So, what is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present and aware of where we are and what we’re doing, non-judgmentally. Mindfulness invites you to notice and acknowledge your feelings and thoughts about a situation or experience but encourages you to broaden your focus to move past them, rather than being restricted by them. You’re advised to avoid harping on the past or worrying about the future since these thoughts disconnect you from the present moment.

Mindfulness is often incorporated into other practices such as yoga and meditation. Research studies have alluded to the benefits of mindfulness meditation, the practice of detached observation from one moment to the next. In contrast to other forms of meditation that focus on restricting attention to one object, this approach to mindfulness meditation is flexible and expansive, allowing your field of attention to grow.

It works! The proof? Science.

The benefits of mindfulness meditation are far reaching. High levels of stress can have a large impact on your mood, behavior, and body including weight gain, fatigue, depression, anxiety disorders, and drug and alcohol abuse. Evidence shows mindfulness meditation reduces stress through enhanced emotional regulation and cognitive control.2 Brain scans of participants in a mindfulness meditation program revealed improved functional connectivity, which means the brain’s network of cells were working more cohesively. Improved brain functioning and stress management were the underlying mechanisms behind reduced levels of a key inflammation biomarker that has been linked to inflammation-related diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. In fact, there was a sustained decrease of this biomarker four months after the program. This suggests that mindfulness meditation can have potentially long-lasting benefits.3

The benefits of mindfulness meditation are not limited to stress reduction, however. A recent study found that overweight female subjects participating in a mindfulness meditation program reported decreased perceived stress scores as well as decreased fasting blood sugar levels at the end of the program and at a follow-up eight weeks later. This reduced indicator can be indicative of reduced risk for hyperglycemia and diabetes.4 Mindfulness meditation has been found to improve the management of anxiety, depression, pain, attention, and learning and memory, too. 

In vogue: mindfulness practice grows among Americans

If practicing mindfulness seems rather simple, it’s because it is. This simplicity makes it uniquely and widely accessible. A variety of companies, such as Journey Meditation, multiple blogs such as the “Meditation For Real Life” blog on the New York Times, and other apps provide tips and training that bring mindfulness and meditation into the home and workplace for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The volume of research in this area comes at a time when the practice has seen sharp increases in popularity. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, nearly 18 million (8%) of U.S. adults and 927,000 U.S. children practice meditation, a consistent trend across all age, racial, and ethnic groups. It was most widely practiced by people ages 40-49, with significant following among other age groups as well.5 Some people have raised concerns over the potential affiliations frequently attached to the practice, but experts assure that mindfulness meditation does not have a connection to any particular religion or culture and does not follow any particular doctrine. This makes it compatible with a variety of religions, customs, traditions, beliefs, and practices.

Mind-body techniques that employ mindfulness can help relieve with stress. Mindfulness techniques can be incorporated into your everyday routine, taking as little as eight minutes per day and imparting a wide-range of benefits. “Stress comes from a mismatch between what we want to see happening and what is actually happening. Simply accepting things as being the way they are and letting go of our need to have things go our way can bring us a lot of relief. A consistent meditation practice can help us to let go of needing things to be a certain way and change our response to the situation,” said Stephen Sokoler, Journey Meditation CEO and Founder.

Talk to your physician and SENS health coach for other tips to manage your daily stress levels and develop effective coping strategies that work for you.

References

  1. Stress in America: Coping with Change. (2017). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2012/report-summary.aspx.
  2. Prakash, R.S., Hussain, M.A. (2015). The Role of Emotion Regulation and Cognitive Control in the Association Between Mindfulness Disposition and Stress. Psychology and Aging, 30(1), 160-171. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25545683.
  3. Creswell, J.D. et al. (2016). Alterations in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Link Mindfulness Meditation With Interleukin-6: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Biological Psychiatry, 80, 53-61. Retrieved from: http://www.biologicalpsychiatryjournal.com/article/S0006-3223(16)00079-2/abstract.
  4. Raja-Khan, N. et al. (2017). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Women With Overweight or Obesity: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Obesity, 25(8), 1349-1359. Retrieved from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.21910/abstract;jsessionid=3810A6B281FAC8CDE71A9E9485BED80F.f03t01.
  5. Clarke TC, Black LI, Stussman BJ, Barnes PM, Nahin RL. Trends in the use of complementary health approaches among adults: United States, 2002–2012.National health statistics reports; no 79. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4573565/.