Mindfulness used to be considered a fringe practice for hippies, New Agers or religious extremists. For a long time, the average adult felt it had no place in mainstream society.
Decade by decade, that line of thinking has been changing as hard scientific facts back up claims that mindfulness leads to better health, a better mind and a better life.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
They don’t call stress the “silent killer” for nothing. Stress acts on the sympathetic nervous system, creating what is better known as the “flight or fight” response (1).
Of course, this autonomic reaction has its place when there is an occasional threat to our well-being. The problem is that people are walking around with that response in action on a daily basis in reaction to life’s many challenges and problems. In the long run, this state can take a severe toll on your health.
Mindfulness has been proven time and time again to decrease stress and its damaging effects on the body, helping you maintain inner equilibrium even in challenging times.
Harvard Medical School found that regular, long-term practitioners of mindfulness meditation and other relaxation exercises have increased amounts of active genes that fight serious diseases and disorders (2).
The effects of mindfulness practice have been shown to be extremely effective in also decreasing symptoms associated with these illnesses. In many trials, mindfulness was proven to be equally as effective as drug treatments. The added bonus being that these mindfulness meditation and relaxation techniques lacked the dangerous and uncomfortable side effects.
When two groups were compared– those who practiced regular relaxation techniques, and those who didn’t– they found the people who engaged in meditative practices had more active genes that protected them from things like infertility, high blood pressure, arthritis, pain, inflammation and even cancer.
Even more amazing was that, after the initial findings, those not practicing relaxation exercises were asked to begin practicing them every day. Within two months, significant changes occurred, increasing the disease resistance in this group as well.
One thing that we just don’t give enough attention to these days is our emotional well-being. Many people out there are suffering from depression or anxiety, not to mention stress – and feel it’s just an unavoidable part of life.
According to the Mayo Clinic (3), our emotional well-being benefits greatly from the daily practice of mindfulness. It can help us gain a better perspective, manage stress, improve self-awareness, help us focus on the present and reduce negative emotions that can overwhelm us. (4)
Considering the money our society collectively spends on therapy, chemical drugs and treatments, it almost seems absurd to overlook something as simple as a daily mindfulness practice.
Rewiring Your Brain Circuitry
One of the more astounding recent findings about meditation and mindfulness is that it can actually change the structure of the brain (5). Britta Hölzel of Harvard Medical School led a study examining M.R.I. scans of people before and after mindfulness meditation.
This gives us physical evidence that meditation increases the gray matter in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is related to learning and memory.
If one considers the significance of this finding in relation to the surges of learning disabilities, behavioural disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in recent decades, the potential of these findings may be monumental.
Perhaps this is the key to learning why the brain activity in recent generations – overstimulated by electronics, multitasking and an increasingly busier lifestyle– is more and more debilitating than in the past.
Perhaps such findings will teach us how such disorders can be corrected more with mindfulness techniques, rather than pouring chemical brain stimulants into people from early childhood.
One of the most overlooked benefits for mindfulness is simply that people who practice regularly tend to have a healthier outlook on life. This outlook enables people to really enjoy life, to be productive and reach their full potential.
Mindfulness lets our minds rest so we don’t fixate on the negative or drudge up the pain of the past to relive it over and over. It expands our awareness so we can see the bigger picture in life; this helps us put our problems into perspective. It makes life more rich and satisfying.
So many benefits to mindful living are continuously being revealed by scientific research, it seems we just can’t afford the skepticism anymore. But if you do remain skeptical, you don’t have to take anyone at their word. For only 20 minutes per day, you can find out for yourself just how much mindfulness can benefit your life. What have you got to lose?
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