When people consider their health, they’re often concerned mostly with their body: exercising it, feeding it properly, and when it breaks down, heading to the doctor to make things right.
Over the last several decades, however, scientists have gathered a great deal of evidence about how our physical health is influenced significantly by what goes on in a part of our body that’s often overlooked in that process: our brain.
By now you may have already heard about mindfulness meditation; Time magazine declared the existence of a “Mindful Revolution” in a cover story last year. Unfortunately, its growing popularity has been accompanied by a lot of misinformation about what mindfulness is, and isn’t.
Being mindful involves bringing awareness, curiosity, and acceptance to your experience of life in each moment; it doesn’t mean trying to make your mind go blank or to stop thinking. Mindfulness may sound simple, then—and it is—but it can be difficult to practice because our human brain has the tendency to drift away into mental activities like planning, remembering, problem solving, and fantasizing even when we’d like it to stay put. With practice, however, it becomes easier to turn toward, remain with, and accept your emerging experience of life, whatever it may be. By doing this, you’ll spend more time fully present in your life and reap a number of health benefits.
Mindfulness meditation practices have been incorporated in a wide variety of mental health applications, to help people suffering from things like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Likewise, the physical health benefits of mindfulness practice are many and varied. They include lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, improved immune system function, and even the physical growth of those parts of the brain associated with concentration. Mindfulness has also been used widely with people who experience chronic pain; meditation has been shown to alleviate physical pain by as much as 50%.
How to Get Started
Mindfulness meditation centers are springing up around the country, and there are also many free online sources of guided meditation. However you don’t need to wait to find one of those to get started; you can start right now with a simple exercise. Allow your eyes to close, and bring your attention to the sensations of your breath, wherever they’re most noticeable to you. Your mind will probably wander away at some point. When this happens, just acknowledge that it has, and gently bring your awareness back to your breath. Then do the same thing again the next time.
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Jim Hjort, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist and the founder of the Right Life Project, where he helps people overcome roadblocks to self-actualization as a psychotherapist, coach, and mindfulness meditation instructor. You can learn more at RightLifeProject.com and follow Jim on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.