Diane Baumer admits she was fairly certain mindfulness wouldn’t work for her. “I knew it had worked for others, but my depression was so severe and nothing had ever worked [for treating it]. I’ve had it all my life, and it’s completely rearranged the pathways in my brain.”
She first became aware of mindfulness in the 1980s, when she was introduced to Buddhism, but had only learned about it in theory. Last year, desperate to ease her depression and obsessive thoughts, she enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness course. The course taught her how to stay in the moment and not get carried away by her thoughts.
“I was amazed by the change in me,” says Diane, who lives in Florence, Kentucky. “I didn’t have racing thoughts, and my obsessive thoughts about death and dying were gone. By the end of the eight weeks, I had learned to just notice my thoughts rather than grab them and run with them. It’s been life changing.”
Appreciating life as it happens
Mindfulness, experts say, is a practice that helps us pay attention to and self-regulate our thoughts. Staying mindful, or in the moment, allows us to appreciate life as it happens. When our minds are busy doing that, it’s impossible to also be ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.
Although it is based on a 2,600-year-old Buddhist practice, interest in mindfulness has surged globally in recent years. It began gaining significant traction in the U.S. in the 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., began studying the effects of mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He created the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, the first documented structured program to teach mindfulness, which became the model for many programs developed since then.
Today, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs have been implemented in more than 200 medical centers, clinics and hospitals around the world. But it also has gone beyond the medical field. Neuroscientists continue investigating how mindfulness can change both the structure and function of our brains; psychologists use it for their own cognitive improvement as well as to help clients with everything from anxiety and depression to compassion and self-acceptance; business leaders are looking at how mindful decision-making can redefine their workplaces; and educators are embracing such concepts as mindful learning and mindful reading.
Studies show mindfulness can improve communication and happiness between couples and co-workers, and prisons have even used it to help reduce hostility and mood disturbances among prisoners.
It’s about paying attention
“It increases happiness, improves relationships, helps alleviate conditions like depression and chronic pain.…But really, what’s going on is awareness. It’s about paying attention, bringing us back to what is going on right now.”
Richard’s work in the area of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a form of MBSR that implements cognitive therapy-based exercises. Cognitive therapy explores and challenges negative thought processes; MBCT is effective in treating problems like depression and anxiety, he says, because it creates a connection between our thoughts and our feelings.
Take a moment, take a breath
“Once you’ve experienced depression, it cuts a pathway in your brain and makes it easier to become depressed the next time you feel sad,” Richard says. “MBCT teaches you to notice signs of the problems coming up so you can prevent them.” Mindfulness teaches us to take a moment, take a breath and get back to what is happening right now rather than reacting to the “what ifs” of the situation.
For Diane, that means one rough patch in her day no longer spirals into negative thoughts that trigger bad memories and depression. “With more awareness comes better choices,” Richard says. “If I’m aware of how I’m reacting, I can lower my stress response, and that makes other things better. I’m less vulnerable, and my immune system can heal better. Everything improves when you become more aware.”
Healthier mind, healthier body
The mind-body connection has been well proven over time, and mindfulness proponents and practitioners say it holds many keys to creating a healthier, happier life by influencing the body. “It’s not a cure-all, but it will assist in whatever a person is struggling with, whether that’s physical, mental or emotional,” says Ryan M. Niemiec, PsyD, education director at the VIA Institute on Character and author of Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing.
“It offers support and assistance in whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Take for example someone with chronic pain; to learn how to face that directly is a huge challenge. But to bring an honest awareness to your own suffering can completely change your relationship with it.”
Studies have documented the effects of mindfulness on physical ailments. Ryan says medical and scientific endorsements have boosted its popularity and have shown the ways it can help both physical and mental challenges. “Before” and “after” brain scans show that certain areas of the brain get thicker after practicing mindfulness for about eight weeks, according to Richard. He equates it to building muscle by lifting weights—over time, you get stronger, but it has to be maintained in order for the results to continue.
A powerful tool for health
Some clinical studies have focused on how mindfulness can influence specific ailments, including substance abuse, anxiety, PTSD, depression, autism, cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, AIDS, high blood pressure and headaches. On the broadest level, mindfulness is seen as a tool to improve health because it boosts our immune system. Scientists have attributed this to lower secretions of cortisol and adrenaline, both of which suppress the immune system.
Louis Alloro was working on his Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree when he first learned about mindfulness. “Even though I had been involved with personal development my whole life, and had started getting involved with positive psychology, I kept thinking, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’”
But once a friend (and fellow MAPP student) started teaching him mindfulness, he realized that not only was it something he could do easily, it was something he had always had the tools for. All he needed was someone who could show him how to use them.
Today, Louis can’t imagine daily life without mindfulness and meditation practices, which he says help make him more positive and appreciative and benefit him both physically and mentally.
“I think the future of health care is self-care, and mindfulness is such an effective, easy and cheap strategy for self-care,” he says. “We can calm our parasympathetic nervous system, which is our rest-and-digest system, and those are two things that just seem to always be in overdrive today.”
Being mindful has allowed Louis to slow his reactions, calm his mind and become healthier. In doing so, he is able to accomplish more while feeling less stressed. “I love the adage that you have to slow down to speed up,” he says. “Mindfulness lets you do that.”
Driven to distraction
A study by the National Science Foundation discovered that, on any given day, our brain generates some 50,000 thoughts. That averages out to about 52 thoughts a minute during waking hours, so is it any wonder that many of us find it a challenge to “stay in the moment?”
As a doctoral student at Harvard, Matt Killingsworth became interested in the association between happiness and what we’re thinking about. He developed the Track Your Happiness app
to study the causes of happiness, and monitored users in real time.
With more than 15,000 subjects in 80 countries, Matt collected 650,000 “live” reports that led to the conclusion that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” People who were “in the moment” consistently were happier than those whose minds were wandering, even if they were performing a task they didn’t enjoy.
What Matt found most surprising was just how often our minds wander. Overall, our minds are on something other than what we’re doing 47 percent of the time. And, unfortunately, when our minds wander, they usually aren’t visiting a happy place. We often end up with anxiety and worry about the future, or anger or regret about the past. Matt’s studies showed that a wandering mind isn’t the consequence of unhappiness and related anger or anxiety; it’s the cause of it.
“The only moment we can ever be in is the present,” Richard points out. “Mindfulness is about being in the moment, bringing our attention back to what’s happening right now.” For most of us, learning to be in the moment takes some work to undo what’s become a deeply ingrained pattern. As children, we have the innate ability to enjoy the present moment as it unfolds, but before long, we’re taught to start thinking about the future.
Your life is now
“We’re often taught that the ‘good thing’ is coming. It’s always about the next thing,” he says. “Over time, we lose the capacity to enjoy good moments. Even when we [accomplish] a great thing, we’re already thinking about what’s next.”
While there is a place for planning, he says the current model doesn’t allow us the chance to enjoy the moment. As children, we start talking about what we’ll be when we grow up; we go to high school and think about college, and while in college we dream of the career waiting for us. The cycle continues once we get that job; we start saving for our dream house, working for the next promotion, building the future. Before long, it’s time to save for retirement and plan for the golden years.
“About middle age, a lot of us wake up and realized we’ve been tricked. We realize, ‘This is my life! It’s not coming; it’s already here!’ ” Richard says.
Putting it into practice
Mindfulness can help put us back in touch with our true thoughts and feelings, and millions of people around the world have found it transformational. One of the most effective paths is through meditation, but Ryan says many people are intimidated by the idea.
“The three most common reasons for people to abandon their mindfulness meditation practice is that their mind wanders, they forget to do it or they don’t have time,” Ryan says. “Meditation is a way of cultivating mindfulness, so having a formal meditation process is helpful in improving that. But it’s more about finding the right fit.”
For one person, that fit might be a centering prayer; for another it might be self-hypnosis; someone else might choose to do an insight meditation. Many classes and online courses now teach mindfulness and meditation practices. Keep in mind that there’s no onesize-fits-all solution; it’s what works for the individual.
Find your fit for meditation
Louis, for example, is fond of taking mindful walks as a way to improve positive emotions. “I put away my phone and purposefully attend to the experience of taking a walk,” he says. “I feel my feet each time they connect with the ground, and I see things to be grateful for. I can feel my heart rate slowing down, and I become more calm, more at peace.” Walking or eating mindfully are easy, effective ways to take a break—and they can be done unnoticed by others.
Diane practices mindfulness in everything from washing the dishes to taking a walk, being careful to notice the touch of sun or water on her skin or the sounds around her.
Other simple, common ways to implement mindfulness can include:
• Sit quietly and observe what you’re experiencing in that moment. Observe the sights, sounds, and smells that typically go unnoticed during a busy day.
• Take note of the physical sensations you’re feeling, whether it’s the texture of a book in your hands, the feeling of the chair against your legs and back or the feeling of water splashing on your skin as you wash your hands.
• When experiencing anxiety, depression or anger, become an observer; look at how your body is responding to the emotion instead of becoming absorbed in the feeling itself.
Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD of Harvard Medical School, likens it to watching clouds drift by; Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., compares it to watching soap bubbles float in the air. Try using the experience as an opportunity to understand the feeling rather than reacting to it.
• And, when all else fails, just take a breath.
“With mindfulness, there is no goal than to become more aware,” Ryan says. “A great place to start is just to breathe. Follow your breath, it’s something we all have. And you’ll notice physiological changes almost immediately.”
Listen to author and Live Happy science editor Paula Felps on the Live Happy Now podcast as she discusses what happens "When Happiness Has a Bad Day."
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