These days, it seems like everyone is making an effort to "be mindful." The buzzworthy phrase might feel like a new addition to the lexicon, but mindfulness meditation actually dates back thousands of years to Buddhist traditions. In fact, Buddha himself used the process as a means to enlightenment. Whether you're on the path to enlightenment or just need a time-out to breathe for a few minutes during a hectic day, though, a mindfulness practice can provide numerous mental and physical health benefits.|
By working to be mindful, you bring yourself into the present moment, focusing only on the here-and-now. When you focus on what you're feeling right now—your breath, body sensations, feelings, muscle tension—you're able to quiet the mind from the constant chatter of to-do lists and other "noise" that typically keeps our minds busy all day. The practice is non-judgmental, so if your mind starts to wander, guide it back without beating yourself up over the challenge to stay focused.
When you think of meditation, it might conjure images of sitting in the lotus position, chanting softly for long periods of time in a quiet room or outside while the wind blows gently. While it might sound so peaceful, how many people realistically have the time for that? If you're like me, you simply want a tool that helps you relax and refocus for short periods of time during the day.
What Does the Research Say?
Julie Frischkorn, a licensed clinical social worker and mindfulness expert at The Pittsburgh Wellness Collective, employs mindfulness techniques with a variety of her clients and has found the practice to be particularly helpful in specific areas, including sleep and anxiety. "Often when folks are struggling, they begin to feel so out of control," she explains. "It can help to have a concrete practice; this allows people to feel that they can tether themselves to an activity as an anchor during the storm so they don’t get tossed about. I often make recordings of mindfulness practices for clients so they can use them in moments of struggle."
Despite the many benefits, though, she notes that people are often hesitant to try mindfulness activities. "One of my favorite thought leaders in the field of mindfulness is Dan Harris, [author] of 10% Happier," Frischkorn says. "He [states] that mindfulness is a victim of a huge [public relations] problem, and I couldn't agree with him more. When the average person hears the word 'mindfulness' they think of the 'woo woo'—crystals, robes, burning sage, pan flutes. What they don't think of is the scientific data and the multitude of benefits that come from the practice of training our brain or engaging in exercises of mental fitness. When people are skeptical, I encourage them to look into the neuroscience and data behind the practices benefits."
- A study in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that mindfulness training can be used as a treatment to slow cognitive impairment in those suffering from the disease.
- A study in the journal Brain and Cognition studied the brain after an eight-week mindfulness course and found more activity in the higher-functioning areas of the brain and less activity in the areas that handle stress and emotional regulation. This helps validate the idea that physical changes in the body as a result of mindfulness training can result in positive mental changes.
- Results of an online mindfulness intervention, published in the journal Mindfulness, documented lower levels of perceived stress, anxiety and depression post-treatment and at three- and six-month follow-ups for participants. This demonstrates the effectiveness of using mindfulness training as a complement to traditional methods of treatment.
Frischkorn doesn't just prescribe mindfulness activities to her clients—she practices what she preaches. "Having a regular mindfulness practice has helped me catch myself when I am letting life pass me by," she describes. "It doesn't mean that I am always living in the present moment, but it has helped me to be more aware and notice when I am missing moments of joy. Whether with my children because I'm picking up my phone, with my friends because I'm worrying about work, or with myself because I'm letting mental chatter rent too much space in my head, mindfulness has given me a greater capacity for choice." Frischkorn says being mindful allows her to live life more deeply instead of dwelling in the feelings of fear or distraction.
My introduction to mindfulness came as a 21-day challenge, a challenge that, despite initially seeming daunting, eventually taught me to relax and even fall asleep more quickly. Instead of committing to something huge, I promised myself one to two minutes of quiet time daily using an app called Insight Timer. The positive results encouraged me to continue with the practice after the challenge was over.
Even if you don't take a dedicated amount of time to do a mindfulness activity, you can still incorporate the ideas into your daily life. Frischkorn reminds clients that it doesn't have to be a separate activity. "When you wash your hair, smell the shampoo, feel the water temperature, notice the sensation of your fingers on your scalp," she offers as an example. "More importantly, just be in the moment of the activity and notice what you are doing, while you are doing it."
If you're willing to give it a chance but aren't sure how to begin, Frischkorn created these short mindfulness exercises as a starting point. Regardless of whether you work a traditional desk job or you're on the move all day, both can be done anytime, anywhere.
Do you notice any difference in how you feel after giving these exercises a try? By taking a minute or two to take a breath and reset, do you feel a sense of calm and clarity? Sometimes just a short time-out is all you need to regain focus and move forward with your day.
- As you eat your lunch, whether it is in a cafeteria, your car or sitting at your desk, take a brief moment to really savor the first two bites of your food. Take a breath. Smell the food before it enters your mouth. Take one bite and chew it purposefully. Look for the flavor. Notice the texture. Pay attention to the temperature. Fully swallow one bite before taking the next one. This very brief practice allows you to slow down your entire process of eating and be in the moment, even if only for a mindful minute.
- Take a moment to notice your surroundings. Use your five senses: Name one thing that you can see, one thing you can hear, one thing you can feel, one thing you can smell and one thing that you can taste. This usually takes less than 30 seconds and it is a good way to bring your body and mind fully into the here and now.
A Passing Fad or Here to Stay?
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control found that the use of meditation in the United States increased among adults from 4.1 percent in 2012 to 14.2 percent in 2017. As people look for more holistic ways to improve their health in addition to the traditional methods of care, meditation and mindfulness training have become viable options.
"I think people in the United States are really suffering right now, mentally and emotionally. Our isolation from each other and the need for bigger, better, faster and more has left us feeling worse rather than better," Frischkorn explains. "Don't get me wrong, I love technology, use social media and am a fast-paced mover and shaker myself. But what has happened, in my opinion, is that we have lost the option to move with intensity or move with ease."
Frischkorn goes on to compare our lives to freight trains at full speed, racing out of control. "The rates of anxiety, depression and antidepressant use are through the roof. Even though many of us live in a state where things appear to be accessible or relatively comfortable, I hear from people every day that they feel deeply disconnected."
In the quest to help people feel better and with more research to validate the effectiveness, Frischkorn sees people are more willing to give it a try and mindfulness training is gaining momentum. "The body of research, particularly in the field of neuroscience, is now helping folks to see why the practice of mental fitness and agility is just as important as physical fitness to joy and longevity."