Archive for November, 2016
By Nicole Maurer, MPH
Written for the Table Magazine in Lebanon – [Link]
The world of wellness is a trendy place. Ideas, and the products that come with them, come and go like the changing seasons. People are always looking for the next big thing. My guess is that you’ve noticed the latest trends in wellness – mindfulness and gratitude. Countless self-help books, television personalities, research scientists and even coloring books seem devoted to the practices of mindfulness and/or gratitude to improve personal health and wellbeing.
Does it work? Is it worth your time? Or is it just another trend, like the Thighmaster or aerial yoga? Let’s start with the basics…
What the heck is mindfulness anyway?
If mindfulness seems a lot like meditation it’s because it is, except when it’s not. There are subtle differences. There are many different types of meditation and “mindful meditation” is one of them. In laymen’s terms, meditation is being able to “quiet your mind” or learn to focus on a single object of attention, like your breath or a mantra.
On the other hand, mindfulness is not always meditation. One of the best ways I’ve heard mindfulness be explained is that it’s not a time to “zone out” but rather a time to purposefully pay attention to your surroundings. This might include your emotions, thoughts, and how your body feels. Practitioners often describe trying to focus only on things happening in the present moment, not to think or worry about the future or the past. Mindfulness often includes paying attention to your breathing, but also stresses single-tasking or giving something your full attention. In a world filled with distractions, stressors and schedules this is not something most of us do often.
What about gratitude why would we need to “practice” it?
You may ask yourself, “do I really need to practice being grateful”? I agree, it does sound ridiculous. We shouldn’t have to teach people to be more thankful or appreciative in their daily lives. Except we do. When was the last time you received a compliment, or told someone else how helpful they were? Studies show that people who express more gratitude are happier, have stronger feelings of social support, and feel less stressed and depressed. It’s pretty simple, and much easier than learning mindful meditation. Thank people more often. Don’t just think it, express it – in writing, in person, on social media, wherever. There’s even an app for that (or twelve).
Does it really work?
Despite mindfulness and gratitude feeling trendy right now, it was great Roman orator, Cicero, who that said “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” And research agrees with him. In the past thirty years, countless studies have been done on the effects of mindfulness and gratitude on physical well-being. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is being used to treat chronic pain, stress, irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety. Gratitude studies show positive results in many similar areas of study including depression and immunity.
How does it work?
In one study, MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress (Taren et al, 2013).
We know that chronic stress, and more importantly the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline can wreak havoc on your body. Specifically, continued overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — will increase your risk of health problems, including anxiety, digestive disorders, heart disease, obesity, memory impairment and sleep issues. So therefore any therapy that lowers your stress has the ability to decrease stress related health problems.
I believe you, so what now?
The upcoming holiday season often has a dual purpose in our lives. It’s a time of reflection and giving but can also be a time of stress, crazy over scheduling, and multitasking. Perhaps we can devote a little more time to ourselves and test out some of these trendy stress busters. Like any good trend there are plenty of books, websites and apps available to help you get started.
Taren AA, Creswell JD, Gianaros PJ (2013) Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64574. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064574