The practice of meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, has recently surged in popularity. This is largely because the health benefits of mindfulness meditation are very impressive and supported by scientific studies.
Most meditation practices emerged from a religious context. Mindfulness is just one specific meditation approach, and is often defined as either a ‘state of mind’ that is both focused and flexible and/or as "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally."
Mindfulness is very well-studied in health research. The scientific literature shows that it is helpful in an enormous range of health conditions. Stress reduction appears to be the common link.
Stress is associated with a reduced ability to use the prefrontal cortex of one’s brain. This is the part of one’s brain that is responsible for most of one’s higher order thinking abilities such as problem-solving and decision-making. Mindfulness allows for the effective use of one’s prefrontal cortex, under stress.
Those who regularly practice mindfulness tend to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which helps to limit the many negative impacts of stress including the physical, emotional and cognitive difficulties most of us experience when “stressed”. This is important as many health conditions are worsened by stress and the ongoing presence of cortisol in one’s bloodstream.
In general, mindfulness has a direct and positive effect on mental health, especially anxiety and depression. Anxiety causes chronic, excessive, and often uncontrollable worry and, sadly, up to 60% of patients do not improve with conventional treatment, such as medications and psychotherapy. Studies show mindfulness can help. In this regard, numerous studies have found significant benefits, particularly when mindfulness is used alongside anxiety medication.
Research has been equally positive when it comes to clinical depression. This is a complex disorder characterized by low mood and/or avoidance of usual activities. Conventional care includes medication and psychotherapy. Unfortunately, many individuals relapse at some stage. Mindfulness has been shown to help prevent relapse for those who do not wish to use maintenance antidepressants. (Note that this does not mean that those with depression should discontinue medications.)
When it comes to obesity, weight loss and metabolic syndrome, mindful eating helps to increase one’s awareness of hunger and satiety cues. And it makes sense that mindful eating is beneficial for weight loss given our modern, fast-paced, fast food lifestyles where many of us gobble down our meals without much awareness of the amount we are eating let alone of the wonderful flavours of the food.
In general, research suggests that the potential health benefits of mindfulness meditation are very impressive. It's a harmless practice that can only be good for us, and there are many inexpensive or free resources, courses and meditation apps available online. Alternatively, if you are looking to explore the benefits of mindfulness alongside other interested individuals you might like to try an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. If you are intrigued, join me at one of my upcoming free talks on mindfulness and stress.
News supplied by Alistair Mork-Chadwick.