Mindfulness. It’s a popular word these days — a buzz word used by those in the know.
Mindfulness is the “in” thing when it comes to handling stress, bringing greater fulfillment, better focus, and higher academic achievement. Great leaders practice mindfulness. And technology is following suit with a myriad apps to help increase mindfulness.
But what really is mindfulness? The American Psychological Association defines it this way:
… a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. In this sense, mindfulness is a state and not a trait. While it may be promoted by certain practices or activities, such as meditation, it is not equivalent to or synonymous with them….
Researchers theorize that mindfulness meditation promotes metacognitive awareness, decreases rumination via disengagement from perseverative cognitive activities and enhances attentional capacities through gains in working memory. These cognitive gains, in turn, contribute to effective emotion-regulation strategies.
That’s a lot to wrap our heads around. And while the term mindfulness still sends some people running for the hills because they believe it has to do with religious practices, there are some solid scientific benefits that mindfulness practices bring:
Scientific Benefits to Mindfulness
Mindfulness Alleviates Stress
Stress in today’s day and age is just a matter of course. It’s akin to being human. And it shows itself not just in distraction; it has many physical side effects as well! WebMD lists these symptoms as potentially stress related:
Emotional symptoms of stress include:
- Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
- Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
- Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
- Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed
- Avoiding others
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Low energy
- Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- Frequent colds and infections
- Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
- Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
- Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Cognitive symptoms of stress include:
- Constant worrying
- Racing thoughts
- Forgetfulness and disorganization
- Inability to focus
- Poor judgment
- Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side
Behavioral symptoms of stress include:
- Changes in appetite — either not eating or eating too much
- Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
- Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
- Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing
We don’t know about you, but these symptoms include a lot of stuff wewant to avoid. There’s good news, though! Mindfulness practices can help reduce almost all of these stress symptoms over time. But mindfulness isn’t a magic wand, as much as we wish we could say it is. It’s a practice that takes some time to learn but helps us systematically lessen stress over time. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t mean that the issues that are causing stress will go away. However, It doesmean that we will learn how to acknowledge these stressors in our lives and learn to be okay with the imperfect state of things. Mindfulness helps us as we navigate the bumpy road we’re on. This simple act of acceptance can be far from simple, but by calming the mind and body we’re better able to pursue solutions.
Mindfulness Builds Compassion
Mindfulness teaches us to pay attention — to our bodies, our emotions, and our thoughts. But instead of judging ourselves, mindfulness lets us acknowledge these thoughts and feelings and then let them pass. In a world that condemns at every turn for not being smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough or fast enough, this lack of judgement can do wonders! When we learn to be more compassionate with ourselves, we open ourselves up to be more compassionate with others. By checking in with our bodies and minds a few times a day to find out how we feel, why we feel it, and where we feel it, we can avoid feeling overwhelmed.
In fact, we’ll often discover that most of the time, overwhelm, anger, or fear isn’t the enemy. Rather, how we react to these feelings is where we often sideline ourselves. Mindfulness allows us to see patterns in our thinking. As a result, we can avoid getting caught up in our thoughts. We’re less caught up in our own dramas and become more aware of the thoughts and needs of others. We’re in this life together, and when we give ourselves and others the room to be themselves, compassion blossoms.
Mindfulness Engages the Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve, our biggest cranial nerve, transports messages from the brain to the respiratory, nervous, and digestive systems, and all the major organs, and back again. It also controls our ability to stay calm. And it’s the one that tells our brain that you’re safe and protected. For example, when you meet someone you like, all the nerve receptors in your body let your brain know that a good thing is happening — all through the vagus nerve. Just the same, when you’re nervous or uncomfortable, this same nerve lets your brain know that things are amiss. When we take the time to breathe deeply and slowly, we let our brains know through the vagus nerve that all is well. The more we engage the vagus nerve positively, the more peace, calm, joy, and good health we enjoy.
Mindfulness Builds Gratitude
Checking in with ourselves daily helps us slow down. When we scan our body, mind, and thoughts for what’s going on and how we feel, we begin to notice the areas that hold tension. This awareness, this mindfulness, can help us catch tension as it begins building rather than when it explodes. We begin to notice what feels good, or what we like more quickly as well. A beautiful aroma, a soft fabric on our skin. And we can observe the positive benefits of stress — how it energizes us to get things done or make needed changes.
Mindfulness Builds Resilience
Resilience is the ability to recover readily from adversity. Does mindfulness really have the power to make this happen? Before we answer, let’s talk about how we cultivate resiliency. A recent study by Badri Bajaj and Neerja Pande highlighting the link between mindfulness and resilience found this:
“Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally). Pausing and observing the mind may (help us) resist getting drawn into wallowing in a setback.”
These researchers discovered that “individuals with higher mindfulness have greater resilience, thereby increasing their life satisfaction.” Their conclusion? “Mindfulness training could provide a practical means of enhancing resilience, and personality characteristics like optimism, zest, and patience.”
Emotional resilience can be strengthened through mindfulness practices. And in our case here at 5 Radical Minutes, it can be done in just five minutes a day. There’s no greater investment we can make in ourselves than to invest time to alleviate stress, and build compassion, gratitude and resilience!
Just recently I learned of the difference between mindfulness and meditation. I think it’s critical that the differentiation between the two be made clear over and over. As much as I appreciate meditation and the benefits that many people I know receive from it, I, myself, felt a number of negative emotional responses to it because of years of trying to make it work and failing. Unfortunately I did not check out the difference between meditation and mindfulness until recently and considered them to be synonymous.