By now, you’ve probably heard about the reportedly life-changing power of mindfulness, a practice that encourages us to keep our thoughts and actions in the present moment. It is said to help with healthy eating, a better night’s sleep, schoolwork and more. But just what is mindfulness and what are its health benefits?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, the founder of a popular mindfulness training program in the United States, brought mindfulness to the attention of the health care profession. In 1979 at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, he created an eight-week stress-reduction program for patients with chronic pain and other stress-related illnesses to enhance their response to traditional treatments; he called it Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Today MBSR and similar programs are taught all over the world, including at the UNC School of Medicine.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”
“His definition means that we are actively paying attention to an unfolding experience moment by moment,” Dr. Gaylord says. “It’s training your brain to stay in the present.”
There are a variety of different types of mindfulness practices, many of which are taught during UNC’s eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress and Pain Management Program.
Dr. Gaylord explains one of the central practices, mindfulness of the breath: “Find a quiet place where you have some time to yourself. Sit on a cushion or in a chair, place your hands on your thighs or in your lap. Begin to notice your breathing. Be aware of the breath as it flows in and out. You don’t have to do a particular kind of breathing. You are just noticing your breath.
“If your mind begins to wander or you get distracted by a sound or sensation, just notice it, and then bring your attention back to the present by gently disengaging from whatever distracted you and bringing your attention back to your breath,” Dr. Gaylord says. “And then just do that over and over.”
Mindfulness takes practice. It’s like training a muscle.
“If you want to get stronger, you might go to the gym. And if you continue to do that, you do become stronger, and it becomes a part of your daily life,” Dr. Gaylord says. “Becoming mindful requires similar discipline. By regularly practicing being present, being mindful just becomes part of your life.”
While there is nothing magical about mindful breathing, when you pay attention to your breath, you are anchored to the present moment.
“By practicing mindfulness, you become more aware, and eventually it becomes second nature to you to be present-centered,” Dr. Gaylord says. “You begin to experience everything in the present, rather than being fixated on the past or the future.”
Mindfulness Combats Stress
So what’s the benefit of living in the present moment? Mindfulness makes us less biologically reactive to stress.
First, it helps to understand how stress works in the body: Our autonomic nervous system is broken up into two different branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system initiates a fight or flight response to stress. When this happens, stress hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol are released. This results in increased blood pressure, heart rate and respiration.
In addition, lots of blood is shunted away from our organs to our muscles because our body assumes we need to run or fight. At the same time, cortisol dumps excessive sugar into the bloodstream because our body thinks we need it for immediate energy.
“Meanwhile, the parasympathetic nervous system then kicks in to slow things down and try to get everything back to normal, counteracting the effects of the sympathetic nervous system,” Giscombé says.
Eventually, elevated levels of these stress hormones can lead to heart disease and diabetes.
“Mindfulness creates a space between the stressful event and our reaction,” Giscombé says. “In that space, we can just pause for a moment, which can offset the reaction.”
Not only does mindfulness make us biologically less reactive, it actually repairs the damage that’s been done to the parasympathetic nervous system.
Mindfulness Can Change Your Brain
The amygdala, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, has been shown to decrease in size after mindfulness practice. According to Scientific American, “after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the amygdala appears to shrink.”
If you experience an unwanted sensation because of something that worries you or stresses you out, mindfulness helps you disconnect from it.
“You notice the thought, and you let it go,” Dr. Gaylord says. “We begin to recognize that even though a sensation might feel unpleasant, it is often very temporary. You wear out the connection between the stressor and your reaction to it. Your mind becomes simplified.”
So now when someone irritates you, you might simply notice it without reacting. You might observe your bodily reactions—a tightened throat, for example—but you can view it with some distance, rather than as something you have to act on.
“You maintain a present-secured awareness, and you may even laugh at yourself and say, ‘There I go again. I’m so predictable when my husband says this and that,’” Dr. Gaylord says.
Mindfulness can help with stress—even post-traumatic stress disorder—because it “encourages acceptance and nonjudgment regarding that thought or emotion,” Dr. Gaylord says.
Mindfulness for Pain Management
Mindfulness is helpful for pain management as well.
“You experience pain and then that may increase your stress, which could intensify the pain,” Dr. Gaylord says. “For example, by getting anxious or irritated when you experience pain, you could cause the pain to get worse because you’re tensing your muscles.”
Mindfulness helps to unwind this vicious cycle.
“It’s like you’re taking an aerial perspective. You might acknowledge that this type of pain caused a reaction in the past, but you just notice it, you don’t react,” Dr. Gaylord says. “If you do that repeatedly, you can wear out that connection. You just maintain a present awareness.”
For example, Dr. Gaylord conducted a research study that used mindfulness to help patients with irritable bowel syndrome. In the study, her team compared participation in an eight-week-long course of mindfulness training to an eight-week-long support group. Mindfulness was found to be more helpful than being in the support group.
“Mindfulness lessened the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and we were able to show that they were sustained over at least six months, and in some cases, up to a year.”
Dr. Gaylord says one way that mindfulness helps is by reducing catastrophizing, which is a psychological process that involves ruminating over and magnifying the significance of symptoms of a chronic illness such as IBS.
“You tend to be focused on worrying about your symptoms and fearing that they are never going to get better and perhaps going to get worse,” she says.
Mindfulness helps reduce this catastrophizing when confronted with distressing thoughts.
“In the case of mindfulness,” she says, “you’re just noticing, observing the thought, and then you’re letting go.”
UNC’s Mindfulness-Based Stress and Pain Management Program is open to the public.