By Madeline Ebelini, MA, RYT –
Stress, as we know, has significant negative effects on health, is a major factor in chronic inflammatory conditions, and is a risk factor for many illnesses. Mindfulness is an ancient practice enjoying widespread attention these days due to it’s powerful positive impact on stress. Mindfulness is the skill of intentionally focusing sustained attention on one’s moment-to-moment experience in a non-judgmental way. Mindfulness is a skill that everyone can learn and strengthen with practice. The rewards are many! Mindfulness meditation trains you to focus your attention on the constantly changing flow of physical sensations and mental processes, in a neutral way – without becoming lost in the mental “story” we usually associate with our sensations, thoughts, and emotions. You learn to spend some time each day just watching this flow as an observer, without identifying with or reacting to the contents of that flow. With just a few weeks of training and practice you can significantly reduce the effects of stress on your body and mind.
This year as part of our SWICFT Health & Wellness program, we introduced mindfulness training to a group of patients with excellent feedback. Over time, with regular practice, patients typically experience a noticeable diminishment of their experience of stress. This new way of handling stress bodes well for their physical health and quality of life. Recent reports in the scientific literature support the positive effects our patients are reporting:
Mindfulness Improves Cardiovascular Health
Several recent randomized controlled studies have demonstrated that mindfulness training lowers blood pressure. Another study looked at meditation, an important component of mindfulness training, and the results suggested that training in meditation is associated with improved measures of cardiovascular health including better artery elasticity and aortic valve function.
Mindfulness Benefits Chronic Conditions & Strengthens Immune Function
There are now dozens of studies linking mindfulness training with significant improvements for people with chronic conditions. These conditions include cardiovascular diagnoses as well as fibromyalgia, chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, and multiple chemical sensitivities. Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin is an expert on meditation, the brain, and emotion. His research showed that mindfulness training changes the brain, and that these changes are positively associated with a strengthening of the immune system.
Mindfulness Changes the Brain
Equally as exciting are the current developments in brain science in which MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), is revealing that mindfulness training results in structural changes in the brain which match the improvements and benefits for mind and body that practitioners have long been reporting. For example, neuroscientist Dr. Sarah Lazar and colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital reported in their research that the daily practice of mindfulness meditation resulted in a thickening of the part of the brain’s cerebral cortex responsible for decision-making, attention, and memory. Her research also indicated that meditation may slow the natural thickening of that section of the cortex that occurs with age. Additionally, Dr. Lazar reported that the brain scans of study subjects who underwent mindfulness training, and thereafter reported reductions in perceived stress, also showed reductions in the density of that portion of the brain often called the “fear center” (the amygdala) – a brain structure crucial in the stress response, which becomes hyper aroused with long term stress. With mindfulness, the brain’s fear center becomes less active and less dense.
These studies, and others, are demonstrating a quality of the brain known as neuroplasticity: the brain’s capacity to change based on our experiences. We have an experience-dependent brain, which we can rewire. Mindfulness training is an experience that produces positive, measurable changes in both physiology and brain structure that improve our ability to calm ourselves, avoid repetitive and toxic emotional reactivity, and improve our experience of life.
Mindfulness May Slow the Rate of Cellular Aging and Reduce Inflammation
2009 Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and colleagues demonstrated that mindfulness meditation might even slow the rate of cellular aging in our bodies! This year researchers demonstrated that mindfulness training reduced the degree of experimentally produced inflammation in test subjects, suggesting that mindfulness has a therapeutic benefit for people with chronic inflammatory conditions. This is powerful motivation indeed to take up such a remarkably healing practice.
Mindfulness and You
The body and mind truly make up a unified human organism. By participating in mindfulness training, and maintaining a regular daily practice of mindfulness meditation, you can markedly transform the habitual mental and physiological patterns that cause your stress, while building and reinforcing new neural circuitry that will translate into a healthier and happier you.
Madeline Ebelini, MA, RYT is a member of the health education team at the Southwest Institute for Cardiovascular Fitness & Treatment in Naples (www.SWICFT.org), and founder of Integrative Mindfulness in Bonita Springs (www.IntegrativeMindfulness.net) where she teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an 8-week educational program available to individuals wishing to learn the skills and practices of mindfulness in order to improve their health, well-being, and quality of life.