The practice of mindfulness is one of the most powerful holistic self-care tools you can use to optimize your physical, mental, and spiritual health. It’s a simple and convenient technique that doesn’t require any special skills and can be learned quickly.
Not only that, it is completely free, requires no visit to a health practitioner’s office, and is available at your fingertips 24-hours a day. This makes it cost-effective and accessible even for those with the most challenging financial conditions.
The regular use of mindfulness and mindfulness-based meditation is one of the most effective ways for reducing stress, managing chronic pain, alleviating anxiety and depression, restoring balance to the autonomic nervous system, coping with life, overcoming addictions, and to top it off, it is a great avenue for spiritual development and creativity.
Although mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, the principles themselves are not attached to any particular religious element and can be used within the context of any belief system.
What is Mindfulness?
In its essence, mindfulness is the act of being more aware and conscious of the present moment, non-judgementally. Or, in other words, making a conscious choice to be aware and experience the present moment to the fullest without judgment, in all your activities, without dwelling in the past or the future.
Experiencing that present moment, or your life, to the fullest and completely, regardless of whether that moment is positive or negative, painful or pleasurable, happy or sad. Feel and experience your feelings and sensations completely.
Being completely aware and present.
Focused on the experience of the moment. It is commonly referred to as living in the NOW.
Most people go through life mindlessly; disconnected, unaware and not paying attention, and miss out on the depth that life has to offer. Mindfulness is the opposite of mindless.
Quieting the noise. Noise is anything that interrupts the experience of the moment.(internal chatter, thoughts, emotions, or external noise like sounds, etc.)
Extracting yourself from your thoughts.
Recognizing that our thoughts are not necessarily reality, just thoughts that can be observed rather than producing a reaction.
In its simplest form, it is a technique to achieve better health and spiritual awareness, however, it is much more than that. As it is practiced more frequently, it becomes integrated into a way of living that enriches your day-to-day life. Your life essentially becomes a type of meditation.
The Science Behind Mindfulness and Health
One of the things I love the most about mindfulness is that like deep breathing exercises, it is a practice that merges the worlds of science and spirituality. It’s a spiritual practice and a strategy to improve mental and physical health all wrapped into one.
Mindfulness has been the topic of a vast amount of studies and the science behind it tells us amazing things about the brain. Using neuroimagery on the brain it has been found that mindfulness stimulates the frontal lobes of the brain which increases health-promoting neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and GABA and reduces our primary stress-inducing neurotransmitter, norepinephrine.
Among other things, these neurotransmitters regulate our mood states and our stress response system; thus increase empathy, compassion, introspection, self-awareness, inner peace, relaxation, happiness, joy, pleasure, and reduce fear, anger, anxiety, and stress.
Our frontal lobes are connected to all the other parts of the cerebral cortex, like our intellect, and can inhibit those areas when it’s activated, thus turning off the constant stream of thoughts. Additionally, it is also connected to the thalamus, our command center for sensation. The frontal lobes influence the part of the thalamus that gaits what sensations are allowed into the brain. So this means that the frontal lobes are involved in the gaiting process.
For example, the thalamus tells you to pay attention to intense pain in your back, but the frontal lobes can override this message when it’s activated and take your attention away from the pain. This is one of the mechanisms that enable mindfulness to be such an effective method of pain relief. Therefore, it appears that the ability to use our breath or any focal point as a gaiting process to inhibit intrusive thoughts (or any noise) is hardwired into our brain.
One of the simplest ways to put mindfulness into practice and understand the concept is through food.
When you eat, be one with your food as if you are in deep meditation.
Put your focus solely on your food and the experience of eating, tuning everything else out.
Experience the sensation of the food on your tongue, the flavor, and the sound of chewing completely.
Be aware of each bite; the flavor, the smell, the texture, and temperature in your mouth.
“Be” with your food.
Don’t gobble things down mindlessly.
Savor your food as if you are engaging in a tender and passionate lovemaking session.
Look at it, feel it, smell it and taste it completely.
Being more mindful of your food and the experience of eating enhances your health physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Your food and your eating experience are much more flavorful, satisfying, and fulfilling, all of which enhance mood and feelings of well-being. It allows time for your hunger hormones to communicate with your body, telling it when it stops eating; thus it reduces cravings for carobs and you are less likely to overeat. Digestion is enhanced, which ensures delivery of more nutrients to the body and mind and smoother transit throughout the gastrointestinal tract.
That’s quite a few benefits for such a simple act. Here are a few other ways mindfulness can enhance your health:
Chronic stress is rampant in our society and a major contributor to poor health. The driving force of chronic stress is autonomic nervous system dysfunction, the body stays in a state of fight or flight on a continuous basis. Mindfulness directly reduces norepinephrine, the neurotransmitter involved in this process, by turning off the sympathetic nervous system and restoring us to the preferred and regenerative parasympathetic state. This results in immediate relaxation and reduction of stress.
Mindfulness and All Chronic Health Conditions
Although mindfulness is found to be exceptionally beneficial for certain health conditions like adrenal fatigue, chronic pain, anxiety disorders, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, dysautonomia, and insomnia, there isn’t any health condition that cannot benefit from the practice.
Chronic stress is a primary cause or exacerbating factor in all chronic medical and psychiatric disorders because it breaks the body down. Since a primary benefit of mindfulness is the reduction of stress, all chronic health conditions respond favorably with a reduction in symptoms.
Furthermore, mindfulness has also been found to enhance immune function.
Disrupted or depleted neurotransmitters is very common in the population due to high stress, poor diet, and environmental toxins, and are at the root of many chronic psychiatric and medical conditions like anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, insomnia, migraines, fatigue, alcoholism, addiction of all kinds, gastrointestinal disorders, fibromyalgia and many more. Mindfulness helps boost and balance our feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, Gaba, and endorphins and at the same time reduces excessive norepinephrine, the neurotransmitter responsible for chronic stress.
Mindfulness can be as effective, if not more so, at alleviating chronic pain as synthetic drugs. By using the source of chronic pain as the focal point of your mindful exercise, pain can dissolve and dissipate.
Although it seems that focusing on the pain you are experiencing would actually increase the pain, the exact opposite is true. This is not the same as being preoccupied with pain or ruminating. We’re talking about accepting, embracing, and becoming one with your pain. Allow it to exist in its entirety, which allows it to release.
All chronic pain disorders respond favorably, but I have found it to be exceptionally beneficial for migraines, headaches, myofascial pain, TMJ, tension headaches, arthritic type pain, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel, and generalized muscle aches and pain.
Emotional Pain and Trauma
The same principle applies to emotional pain. Use the emotional pain as the focal point. Feel the full force of the emotion, own it, become one with it. Allow it to exist. Don’t judge it. It is by completely experiencing and embracing our discomfort that we rise above it and live a less painful life.
This can be used with emotional pain in the current moment or trauma from the past, even trauma that results in PTSD.
Anxiety and Depression
Since the roots of anxiety and depression lie in disrupted or depleted neurotransmitters and mindfulness is a supreme method of improving neurotransmitter production and function and reducing excessive norepinephrine, it is very effective for alleviating anxiety disorders and depression. This is true of most mental health conditions.
Spirituality and Inner Peace
In my definition of spirituality, the components we are trying to achieve include inner peace, contentedness with life, more meaning, depth and purpose in life, connectedness to self and the Universe, and living more authentically. Our spiritual health is largely dependent on how neurotransmitters and the autonomic nervous system is functioning. Once again the ability of mindfulness to improve neurotransmitter production and function and restore balance to the autonomic nervous system enables us to greatly increase all the components of spirituality, including quieting the mind.
Mindfulness helps us stay grounded in the present moment, quiet the inner commentator, and enhances the quality of life.
Mindfulness stimulates the areas of the brain and neurotransmitters that generate creativity. Creative thoughts and ideas begin to flow like a stream. The more you practice it, the more creative you become.
When you are more mindful in your relationships, they are deeper, more meaningful, and satisfying. The people in your life feel more appreciated, important, and valued, which promotes more harmonious and happier connections.
Insomnia and Disrupted Sleep
Studies have found mindfulness to be of significant help with insomnia and disrupted sleep patterns. The direct effect it has on neurotransmitters and the autonomic nervous system provides the body and brain with the ability to turn off the sympathetic nervous system and relax, the primary cause of sleep problems.
Other studies have found that mindfulness stimulates melatonin, the hormone we need in order to sleep. Deep breathing exercises also stimulate melatonin, and since it is often combined with mindfulness, you get two powerful melatonin stimulators simultaneously. I certainly have found this to be true, as I use mindfulness and deep breathing every night when I go to bed and it puts me to sleep in minutes. I often fall asleep during the day if I lie down to do my mindfulness meditation and deep breathing exercises.
Although mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are sometimes referred to as two separate activities, to some degree I kind of see them as one. In my opinion, any practice of mindfulness is basically a form of meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn explains in his book, Full Catastrophe Living that anytime we bring mindfulness to an activity, we transform it into a type of meditation.
However, engaging in the formal act of meditation using mindfulness can provide deeper results as the impact on the frontal lobes of the brain and the autonomic nervous system is increased. You can learn how to do mindfulness-based meditation and begin reaping the many benefits in a few short minutes in my quick and easy little eGuide, Meditating for Health.
The Miracle of Mindfulness and Your Health
The miracle of mindfulness is that it minimizes the experiences we typically consider negative that cause suffering like pain, depression, grief, sadness, trauma, and anxiety, but it enhances the experiences we typically consider pleasurable, like joy, happiness, peace, serenity, simultaneously, thus providing us with a more meaningful and richer life.
Now take these principles and apply them to all your life experiences. Mindfulness can be practiced in every area of your life that you can think of; when making love, spending time with nature, taking a walk, cleaning the house, working, writing, gardening, watching a movie, washing the dishes, listening to music, breathing, drinking water, etc. Virtually everything and anything you do can be done in a more mindful manner.
By being fully present and aware of each experience, even the pain and discomfort, and quieting our inner dialogue, we live a deeper, richer, and more fulfilling life and optimize our health physically, emotionally, and spiritually, simultaneously. Whether you’re looking to improve a health condition that already exists or protect your health from future problems, the benefits are abundant, cost-effective, practical, and accessible to everyone at all times.
However, it’s important to be aware that mindfulness is most effective when it is part of a comprehensive and holistic plan to optimize your health. The benefits will be most abundant when it is used in conjunction with a healthy diet plan like the paleolithic diet and avoidance of environmental toxins with a green lifestyle. Because a poor diet, nutritional deficiencies, and environmental toxins all impair neurotransmitters and functioning of the mind.
If your brain isn’t healthy, then being mindful can be difficult to achieve. Although mindfulness promotes a healthy brain, it has nothing to work with if it’s nutrient deficient and flooded with toxins. The three together (mindfulness, diet, and clean environment) support one another and enhance the effectiveness of each other.