Mindfulness-based stress reduction
“If you can’t change your mind, then you are not using it” – Bashar
Mindfulness is the art of focusing on the present-tense moment, and observing oneself without criticising.
It is one of the simplest forms of ancient meditation that has been practised throughout the Eastern world for thousands of years, but discovered by the West only recently.
How to practice Mindfulness
Benefits of Mindfulness
Help prevent or actually prevent?
Mindfulness for kids: Benefits for young children and students
How to practice Mindfulness
Like most meditation, Mindfulness consists of fully focusing all of your attention on your breath, the inhalation, the exhalation and the movement of your body as it breathes. It causes you to focus all your energy on the present moment, allowing you to gain an outside perspective to your thoughts, and coming to the realisation that you can control your thoughts – your thoughts do not control you.
James Baraz, a meditation teacher since 1978 provided direct and succinct instructions as to how to practice Mindfulness (including Mindfulness based stress reduction) in his book ‘Awakening Joy’, where he explained, “Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different. Enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will). Being with the unpleasant without fearing it would always be this way (which it won’t).
For Mindfulness beginners, the “Little Book of Mindfulness” by Rebecca Howden and Medibank is an excellent guide to starting off and developing your Mindfulness skills.
Benefits of Mindfulness
There are an exponential number of benefits to incorporating the practice of mindfulness within your daily routine, so here is an explanation of just a few of them:
- Decrease in levels of stress
Stress can be an unfortunate struggle prevalent throughout many of our own lives, but luckily, there are ways to alleviate it. It is one of the most deflating feelings, leaving you sleep deprived, worried and anxious, as well as increasing family tensions. With the recent resurgence of mindfulness based stress reduction, a lot of research has been carried out to scientifically support mindfulness.
A 2016 study (by Donald and Atkins) proved that participants who were faced with stressful situation whom also practised mindfulness were less likely to avoid the situation and more likely to approach the situation, compared to participants who did not regularly practice mindfulness. Another 2016 study (by Donald, Atkins and Parker) also found that present-moment awareness practices such as mindfulness stimulate an adaptive response to daily stress, meaning stress can be dealt with more subjectively and therefore more effectively.
- Improving emotional regulation
Emotional regulation is a complex process that involves initiating, inhibiting or modulating one’s behavioural state in a given situation. It comprises up of many different components such as subjective experiences (feelings) cognitive responses (thoughts) emotion-related physiological responses (heart rate and hormonal activity) and emotion-related behaviour (bodily actions or expressions). By practising the simple act of Mindfulness, you can simultaneously calm and control the individual components that regulate your emotions, helping you become a master of your own emotions.
Mindfulness can lead to a greater clarity of thinking by restoring emotional balance and thereby improving your mood. It can also lead to a more positive mindset, thereby decreasing tendencies towards depression and creating a more optimistic outlook on life.
- Enhanced ability to cope with illness
Arguably one of the most researched benefits of Mindfulness is its remarkable influence on enhancing the ability to not only actually prevent, but cope with illness. A 2016 eCALM trial, which surveyed a therapy program for cancer patients found that patients who practised Mindfulness daily found it easier to cope with their illness. This is because Mindfulness reduced stress among patients, encouraged a heightened awareness of spirituality and the practice of non-reactivity to the illness which increased vigour and improved fatigue, leaving patients feeling better able to cope with their illness.
Another 2015 study of the effects of cancer-specific Mindfulness practice on cancer patients found that patients experienced a decreased cogitation and anxiety about their illness, and an increased non-judgmental observation about themselves and others, also boosting their mood and self-esteem.
Help prevent or actually prevent?
It has been said that Mindfulness could actually help prevent cancer because of its stress alleviating and present-moment awareness skills that the practice encourages participants to use. This means that people who regularly practice Mindfulness, mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfulness based cognitive therapy will be more aware of their bodies itself, as well as the positive or negative impacts they were putting their bodies through; through healthy or unhealthy lifestyle habits, for example smoking, drinking and eating an excessive amount of food; thereby ensuring the body’s physiology is as healthy as possible.
It’s no wonder that this form of meditation has such a positive impact on the minds and therefore lives of all who choose to regularly take part in the activity. Mindfulness teaches the important skills of non-judgmental observation, which is arguably especially necessary in our social media consumed world where society has become fixated on judging themselves and others. By doing Mindfulness meditation, you are also practising the skill of present-moment awareness, which is a spiritual teaching that has been taught for many generations. It ties in with feeling gratitude for this particular moment in time, helping you gain a different perspective on your life as a whole and the fullness of life as it is at this very moment.
There is a powerful Buddhist saying: “Yesterday was history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift, and that is why they call it the present.”
By focusing on the present, positive aspects in our lives, we are able to achieve deeper relaxation and alleviate stress – arguably a major contributor towards cancer. Therefore, it is safe to say that practising the magic of Mindfulness based stress reduction does help prevent cancer, because it brings awareness to both the body and mind, and help them to become as healthy as possible separately, to become a healthy cohesive unit. However, it is absolutely imperative to note that the wondrous healing effects of Mindfulness only truly work if you practice them on a daily basis, ideally twice a day. Set aside some time (many expert practitioners such as Deepak Chopra recommend a minimum of 10 minutes) in the morning and evening, to practice Mindfulness, and watch your entire being change in a short period of time.
Given the positive effects that Mindfulness based stress reduction has on terminal and severe illnesses such as cancer, the practice can also prevent minor colds and flues by increasing immune function, decreasing the chance of catching the seasonal flu that will set you back a few days.
- Decreased Depression
In addition to decreasing depressive symptoms through regulating emotions, a 2016 study by Falsafi found that Mindfulness also increases self-compassion and compassion for others, through its non-judgmental observational nature. Depression is a state of being simultaneously consumed by and distanced from overwhelmingly negative emotions, and the practice of present-awareness meditation and even mindfulness based cognitive therapy allows people with depression tendencies to take a different perspective of their feelings, helping them regain control of their emotion and themselves to slip out of depression.
Another 2016 study by Meadows found that Mindfulness meditation reduced depressive episodes, as well as decreased the impact of their health costs, causing them to feel even more optimistic about their circumstances. Mindfulness has been proven to be effective for all types of depression, from mild to severe, from depressive tendencies to suicidal ideation. This is because the practice of present-moment focus was an incredibly effective treatment at reducing these thoughts, a Michalak study found.
- Physical wellbeing
As well as being psychologically and spiritually beneficial, Mindfulness also has physiological benefits for your entire system, including the lowering of both blood pressure and heart rate. This is especially significant as the number one cause of death in most developed countries is heart disease; as a 2015 Buka study found that practising Mindfulness had a strong correlation with improved cardiovascular health through a decrease or complete stop in smoking, an increase in physical activity and therefore a healthier BMI (body mass index).
By practicing the skills of non-reactivity and non-judgment during Mindfulness meditations, mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfulness based cognitive therapy, a Horsch study in 2016 found that participants were more likely to engage in activities that benefitted their physical health, such as receiving regular health-checks and wearing seat belts; proving that even Mindfulness even works for beginners. Furthermore, a 2017 Brennan study found that overweight and even obese practitioners of mindfulness found that they were able to lose weight more easily, by improving their eating behaviours through eating more consciously and increasing the awareness of their daily food intake.
Mindfulness for kids: Benefits for young children and students
Mindfulness is a practice for all, any ages, at any stage throughout life. As the importance of education is emphasised, academic success becomes more weighted year after year which can lead to stress and anxiety for students. As a result, more schools all around the world are incorporating Spiritual Development into their timetables and teaching their students the importance of simply practising Meditation and Mindfulness.
The main benefits of practising Mindfulness regularly include:
- Improved Memory
The regular practice of Mindfulness among people who are activating the brain by regularly learning new information (i.e. students) led to a higher and more powerful brain functioning than those that did not. This is because the practice of present-moment awareness helps to increase the brain’s focus, and decrease the amount of energy lost to multi-tasking activities. As a result, practitioners reportedly found increased memory retention as well as an increased attention awareness span within a group of students with mixed ages ranging from 13-17. This, in turn, improved the youngster’s academic success as the students found they were able to retain a greater quantity of complex information and correctly apply their newly learnt knowledge within their examinations.
- Improved Academic Success
Many recent studies have been conducted to prove the correlation between practising Mindfulness and an increase in academic success. A 2016 Swanson study found that children under ten who practised Mindfulness displayed an increase of prosocial behaviours and empathetic relation with other students, and also an increase in academic performance. Moreover, a 2016 study by Bennett & Dorjee found that teenagers specifically studying for a general education certificate who regularly practised Mindfulness based stress reduction exhibited lower depressive and anxious tendencies, which increased their academic performance.
The correlation between increased academic success and regular Mindfulness practice also occurred outside of as well as within the classroom. A 2014 Costello & Lawler study found that children from reportedly lower socioeconomic backgrounds who took part in a five-week Mindfulness program reported a decrease in stress levels and anxiety about their home life, which allowed them to focus more during school and in turn, increase their academic success. Furthermore, a similar study on urban male youth by Smith & Ellen in 2013 found that participants who practised Mindfulness also experienced less stress, anxiety and negative self-esteem issues, as well as negative means of coping such as through violence and drugs. This improved the ability to cope with academic stress, thereby increasing their academic success.
- Strength against bullying
At the beginning of the West’s discovery of the magic of Mindfulness, a 2005 dissertation by Sandra Mccloy on the effects of Mindfulness practice on victims of bullying found that Mindfulness, mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfulness based cognitive therapy enhances people’s ability to consider other’s perspective outside of their own, and find constructive and valid reasons and reactions to the adversity they were facing. This, in turn, helped people to deal directly with the issue, instead of suffering with it for prolonged periods of time. Furthermore, the practice also helped students change their victimhood mindset by making them realise that they can make a change if they are unhappy with the situation.
Another Chinese study by Zhou, Liu, Niu, Sun & Fan in 2017 on students that were victims of bullying and suffered resultant depression found that Mindfulness alleviated the depressive symptoms by similarly helping the students to escape from the damaging victimhood mind-set.
Mindfulness can also act as a means of prevention against bullying, as well as a method of coping, a Kaldis & Abramiuk 2016 study found. This is because the practice of Mindfulness improved children’s social interactions with each other, and enhance their emotional capability, which could be crucial in prevention some children into developing into bullies.
- Increase social connections
Drinking problems are especially prevalent in late teens and early adults, and excessive drinking can lead to both short and long term physiological and psychological harm. A 2015 Buchanan study found that college students who participated in Mindfulness practices proved an increase in self-control, discipline and vitality, compared to students who did not practice Mindfulness. As a result, these students became more aware and disciplined with their drinking habits, becoming responsible drinkers.
A 2016 Baxter Mindfulness study also in college students showed that students who practice Mindfulness have an increase self-regulation and awareness, compared to students who did not practice Mindfulness. Self-control can, in turn, lead to the inhibition of destructive behaviours and increase physiological as well as social well-being.
- Increase resilience and perseverance
Resilience and perseverance are crucial life skills that every child should be taught the importance of at a young age. A 2016 study by Coholic and Eys found that children in the welfare or mental health care system improved their emotional regulation, mood, empathy and self-esteem, helping them cope better in the face of difficulty and adversity by displaying the skills of resilience and perseverance. This, in turn, decreased their aggression with their family members or those they lived with, which improved the cohesion of their family unit, proving that the effects of Mindfulness (especially Mindfulness based stress reduction) and Mindfulness for kids are widespread and limitless.
In the logically wise words of Sharon Saczberg:
“Mindfulness isn’t difficult. We just need to remember to do it.”