Stress is a fact of life in the Modern Age. Life seems to be moving faster and there are many things vying for our attention – family, job demands, finances, volunteer commitments, raising kids. The effects of stress on our health are well-recognized. Stress causes elevated levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with “fight or flight” syndrome. According to the Mayo Clinic,
long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body's processes.” This puts you at risk for many health problems including:
- Digestive problems
- Muscle tension and pain
- Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
And that’s why it’s important to learn healthy ways to cope with life’s stressors.
To combat the effects of stress and improve well-being, adults of all ages and backgrounds are turning to mindfulness. Mindfulness is a practice that involves paying attention to the present moment and being aware of one's thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment. It has been shown to be effective in reducing stress levels and improving overall well-being.
Many companies have introduced mindfulness as part of their employee wellness program, including training and guided mindfulness sessions on site. In the middle of a stressful workday, employees find that mindfulness leads to benefits including focusing the mind, re-centering one’s emotions, clearing away anxieties, and easing tension in the body. Mindfulness has been known to:
- Calm the mind: Mindfulness meditation can help to calm the mind and reduce the mental chatter that often leads to stress and anxiety. By focusing on the present moment, you can release the worries about the future and regrets about the past, which can help to reduce stress
- Reduce the physical effects of stress: As noted earlier, when we experience stress our bodies release hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can have negative effects on our health. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce the levels of these stress hormones, which can lead to a decrease in physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and fatigue.
- Increase emotional resilience: Mindfulness can help to increase emotional resilience, which is the ability to cope with stress and adversity. By practicing mindfulness, we learn to observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment, which can help us to respond to stressful situations in a more calm and measured way.
- Improve overall well-being: Regular practice of mindfulness has been shown to improve overall well-being, which can help to reduce stress levels. When we feel good about ourselves and our lives, we are better equipped to handle the challenges that come our way.
Mindfulness as primary care
Mindfulness can be effective as part of a primary care regimen and complement to behavioral health. A systemic review in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the effects of a mindfulness meditation program are similar to the “use of an antidepressant in a primary care population but without the associated toxicities.” In other words, mindfulness meditation programs have a similar effect as antidepressants, which are often prescribed for anxiety.
The benefits of mindfulness are comparable to meditation, deep-breathing relaxation exercises, and even contemplative prayer. It’s no coincidence that all involve a purposeful quieting of the mind, focus on breathing and concentration on the present moment. All these practices involve dampening the distraction of runaway thoughts and muting the noise we’re constantly subjected to. After a mindfulness session, participants report feeling refreshed, emotionally centered and ready to approach the day with a clear mind. They return to work with improved focus and can resolve problems with uncommon clarity.
No Special Training Required
Unlike meditation practices, mindfulness does not require a certain posture, repeating phrases or a dedicated space. It merely requires a reasonably quiet environment where you can sit quietly and focus on breathing and other sensations in the present moment. New practitioners often get frustrated because their mind wanders off into the buzz of everyday thoughts. However, one should not be discouraged. Rather than feeling frustrated or self-critical, one can simply acknowledge the momentary loss of focus and gently bring their attention back to the present moment.
Anyone can practice mindfulness. It requires no special mental ability or specialized training. The benefits are well recognized in business, sports, art, and even healthcare. Guided meditation, a form of mindfulness, often is recommended as a form of alternative healthcare. As we grow in understanding of the connection between mind and body, mindfulness may play a growing role in treatment of conditions where lowering stress, and its related effects, can have a positive impact.