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Mindfulness – the practice of being present in the moment – has gained traction in the West over the last few years. It is touted as an alternate treatment for a range of mental health disorders. But how much of the hype around it is backed by science? Let’s take a deep dive into it and find out.
Mindfulness is the state of being completely present in the moment, acutely aware of whatever you are experiencing in that moment. That includes your thoughts and experiences. The practice of mindfulness is to be conscious of your thoughts without really engaging with them. When done consistently over a period of time, it can allow better control over mental processes, thus promoting better mental health.
Here, it is important to note the difference between mindfulness and meditation. Meditation is a tool to experience a mindful state. Once you start experiencing the mindful state through meditation, regularly, the goal is to be present in a mindful state, without meditation, for most part of the day.
Broadly speaking, mindfulness can change your brain, essentially, rewiring it. This rewiring allows you to cope with the stresses of everyday life in a better manner. In order to understand how the rewiring happens, it is important to understand how our brain is structured.
There are three main areas of the brain – the brainstem, the limbic area, and the cortex. The brainstem is responsible for basic functions of the body, such as hunger, or our sleep patterns. It is also responsible for our flight-or-fight response. The limbic region is responsible for our emotions. The amygdala and hippocampus are part of the limbic region. Thus, the limbic region determines our emotional attachments to people, and also, our ability to form memories. The cortex, itself, is divided into three regions: the frontal cortex, the prefrontal cortex, and the posterior cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our sense of self and our morality. The frontal cortex is where all the ideation takes place. This is the region of the brain that helps us imagine. The posterior cortex tracks our movements and location in a physical space.
Different regions of the brain talk to each other via neurons. A typical brain has, approximately, 100 billion neurons. When these neurons fire to talk to each other, the firing patterns determine the shaping of our brain. This shaping then determines how we respond to external and internal stimuli, which, in turn, determines if we feel constantly stressed, anxious, or otherwise.
Fortunately, studies of the brain have found out that it is possible to change the shape of the brain. To understand this, it is important to understand the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of our brain to form new neural connections. In simpler words, it means forming new connections between neurons that previously didn’t exist. It happens all the time in our brain, as we experience new things, or learn new skills.
However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that we can direct these new connections in our brain, essentially rewiring it. There are a lot of ways to rewire your brain using neuroplasticity, such as learning a new musical instrument, travelling, dancing, or even creating art.
New research has found that mindfulness training can boost neuroplasticity Essentially, by repeatedly controlling your attention voluntarily, neural networks in the cortex region of the brain are strengthened. This happens through the release of various neurochemicals. Since neural connections in the cortex region are amplified, it leads to improved memory and attention span, and reduced stress, all functions of the cortex region.
Scientific research in the field of mindfulness meditation is relatively new. Several studies are ongoing and their results are being actively debated. One of the biggest challenges in empirically measuring the effectiveness of mindfulness on physical and mental health is the subjectivity involved. How do you differentiate between a seasoned practitioner and someone who has just started practicing mindfulness in their everyday life? There is also challenge of different definitions of mindfulness, and building a consensus among different researchers.
That said, advancements in the field of brain imaging have brought some objectivity to the scientific study of mindfulness. For example, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists can measure brain activity in the form of brain waves. Several preliminary studies on the effects of mindfulness on our body and mind have shown promising results. These include:
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests practicing mindfulness can positively reduce stress and be beneficial for patients with mental health disorders. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy combines cognitive behavioral therapy with mindfulness meditation. Clinical studies have shown that is can be effective for treating chronic depression. According to research, mindfulness can reduce episodes of relapse in patients with acute depression or anxiety.
However, it is important to note that the effects of mindfulness on mental health are at par with other methods of managing and improving mental health. At least, that’s what initial studies in the field suggest. More in-depth studies are needed to properly examine the effects on mindfulness meditation on mental health.
How does it work:
Theoretically speaking, mindfulness seems to reduce repetitive thought-patterns, also called rumination. Patients with chronic depression and other mental health disorders are prone to repetitive thoughts. Mindfulness enables them to control such behaviour more efficiently.
Clinically speaking, regular mindfulness meditation can rewire the brain. According to initial studies, mindfulness can increase gray matter in the hippocampus of your brain. This region of the brain is, primarily, responsible for memory and learning. Studies have also shown that mindfulness can reduce gray matter in amygdala of your brain. This region of your brain is responsible for processing emotions. Abnormalities in the amygdala have been associated with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even autism. By regulating the function of the amygdala, mindfulness shows promise in improving mental health.
Several studies have suggested that mindfulness meditation can have a positive impact on our disease-fighting cells. Whenever our body encounters viruses or other harmful organisms, it produces disease-fighting cells in large numbers. There are various kinds of disease-fighting cells, such as T-cells, anti-inflammatory proteins, immunoglobulins, and neutrophils.
In a small controlled trial of HIV-1 patients, mindfulness seemed to increase the activity of T-cells in the body. T-cells, as mentioned earlier, are cells called upon by your immunity to fight a disease. Increased activity of T-cells suggests that mindfulness can be useful in fighting cancer.
Mindfulness meditation also seems to be helpful in fighting acute respiratory infection. According to a small trial, patients who regularly practiced mindfulness meditation had improved levels of interleukin-8 proteins and neutrophil. Neutrophils are white blood cells. Together with a higher count of interleukin-8 proteins, it suggests that mindfulness can positively improve immunity.
Yet another study suggests that mindfulness meditation can reduce C-reactive protein levels in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Higher levels of C-reactive protein in the body are an indication of inflammation. Reduced levels of C-reactive protein after a mindfulness meditation course suggest that mindfulness can reduce inflammation in the body and positively influence the quality of life of people with rheumatoid arthritis.
We grow older as our cells age. We start showing signs of ageing when more and more of our cells age and stop multiplying. This is a natural biological phenomenon. However, cell ageing can be exacerbated due to factors such as stress, anxiety, and diseases. Furthermore, the speed at which you age is influenced by proteins called telomeres, which are present at the end of your chromosomes. Length of telomeres is inversely proportional to the speed at which you age.
Thus, longer telomeres structures mean your cells age slower, which, slows down your ageing process. Small-scale studies have suggested that people who practice mindfulness meditation regularly have longer telomeres structures. Thus, they might age slower than others.
As you age, there is natural decline in cognitive functions of your brain. Cognitive function means your ability of problem solving, thinking, reasoning, decision-making, and attention. There is growing body of evidence that mindfulness can slow down cognitive decline associated with ageing. It has been seen that mindfulness can improve attention spans and learning ability in young adults. The same might also be useful in mitigating the slowing down of your brain, as you age. In that context, mindfulness can be an effective treatment for mitigating Alzheimer’s or other conditions associated with cognitive function of the brain.
A small caveat: A lot of the studies that aim to measure the efficacy of mindfulness are based on very small sample sizes. While they have shown positive results associated with mindfulness, they shouldn’t be taken as basis for proven alternate treatments for various physical and mental conditions. In fact, even in a lot of these small studies, mindfulness seemed to be at par with other forms of treatment in terms of efficacy. It suggests that while mindfulness might be helpful in managing certain conditions, it shouldn’t be considered as the only form of treatment.
Mindfulness can be beneficial for healthy adults, too. Some of the benefits of mindfulness in healthy adults include:
Cognitive flexibility means your ability to switch between two different concepts, quickly. In a research study, researchers pitted experienced meditators against people with no meditation experience. They found that experienced meditators had better attention spans. They were also more adept at avoiding distracting information. Furthermore, experienced meditators had better cognitive flexibility.
One study pitted non-meditating military group against a meditating military group. Both the groups were exposed to the same levels of occupational stress. The research study compared working memory capacity of the two groups, after 2 months of mindfulness training. The study found that the non-meditating group showed a decline in working memory capacity, while the meditating group showed a marked increase in the same. The result could directly be related to the positive effects of mindfulness on the hippocampus of the brain, which has been cited earlier in this article.
Based on the study, it looks like mindfulness training can improve your memory and learning capacity. It also suggests that mindfulness can protect against functional impairments, which might be a direct result of working in a stressful environment.
There is no one way to go about practicing mindfulness. There are a bunch of techniques and you should pick the ones that work for you the best. The end-goal of mindfulness meditation is to train your mind to be present in the moment. Consistency is the key here. The more regular you are with your practice, the better you will get at it, due to reasons of neuroplasticity, as explained above.
Some of the most common techniques of mindfulness meditation are:
Focus your attention on the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. When you find yourself getting distracted, bring back your attention to the process of breathing.
Another technique to anchor the mind in the present is to scan your body from head to toe. Focus on any niggles or aches that you might be experiencing. As you get more comfortable, move your legs and arms, one by one, and focus on the movements.
It is very natural for your mind to wander and get distracted. A key mindfulness technique is to observe these thoughts, but not engage with them. Do not fight any positive or negative thoughts as they come to you. It might be easier said than done, though. This mindfulness technique might be more useful for more experienced practitioners.
Focus on one thing, thought, or person to anchor your mind. Visualise them in front of you and try to focus on how you are feeling. Here again, it is important not to fight with however you are feeling. The goal is to pay attention to the feelings without engaging with them.
In the beginning, any of these exercises might be very challenging. For beginners, it is important to start small. Begin with 5 to 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation. As you get more comfortable, increase the duration, going up to an hour everyday. If you find even 5-10 minutes of mindfulness training difficult, start with one-minute exercises. It can be as simple as eating a piece of chocolate mindfully. Bite into it, slowly, savouring every bit of it. Focus on the texture and the taste of it as you do, so.
Another idea is to mindfully breathe for just a minute. Sit down in a comfortable chair, and for a minute, focus on your breathing. As you get more comfortable, increase the duration.
Most of us lead very busy lives. It might not be possible for everyone to dedicate 45 minutes everyday to mindfulness training. However, you don’t necessarily have to set aside time to practice mindfulness. You can do it while going about your everyday tasks. For example, practice mindfulness when you are brushing your teeth in the morning. Focus on the motion of the toothbrush, the sound it is making, and how it feels on your teeth. Here are some other easy ways to incorporate mindfulness in your everyday life:
1. Practice it right when you wake up. Before you get up from your bed, sit down, close your eyes, and anchor your mind in the present. Take help from any of the techniques mentioned above.
2. Practice it while you are waiting. You might be waiting for someone to show up, or for a meeting to begin. Use this time to train your mind on staying in the present. Pay attention to the things around you, the way things look, how they smell, and how they make you feel.
3. Use a prompt to remind yourself to be more mindful. A prompt could be a certain object on your office desk, a certain door in your house, or even a certain shop you pass-by everyday to work. Whenever you see the prompt, anchor your mind in the present moment.
Our brains are very complex organs. Training them can be tough. Hence, you might need guided mindfulness training, especially if you are a beginner. Here are some of the best tools out there for mindfulness training:
It is one of the best-known meditation apps out there. Since its launch in 2010, it has garnered a massive user base of 60 million people, worldwide. The app works on a freemium model. Paid subscription gives you access to hundreds of mindfulness exercises, including the option to download them for offline access. Paid subscriptions for Headspace start at $12.99 per month.
This is another app that’s available to iOS as well as Android users. It has guided mindfulness programmes for beginners, intermediates, and advanced. The app also has a mood check-in feature, which allows you to reflect on how you are feeling. However, the app has very limited content in the free tier. You need to subscribe to make the most of the app. Subscription starts at $12.99 per month.
There are a bunch of courses on mindfulness available on Courseera, an online learning platform. These courses are taught by professors from respected universities such as Yale University and Leiden University of the Netherlends.
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