How to Boost Your Health, Reduce Stress, and Live More Joyfully
Our life is what our thoughts make it. –Marcus Aurelius
If you are like me, it is easy to live life in a highly distracted state. We are multitasking our way through just about everything. Our already highly charged lives have been further complicated with the proliferation of cellphones and social media. Our brain (our mind) has become trained to multitask, plan the future and ruminate the past. This has left the present moment often forgotten. The irony is that the present moment is really the only one we have. The past is gone and the future is still untold. The present, on the other hand, is the now, the moment in our life when it all happens. By being totally present, we have the amazing opportunity to watch life unfold, to experience its pleasures, its pains, and its wonders.
What defines this idea of living in the present? You’ve probably heard the words “mindfulness” and “meditation” more often in recent history. Once seen only as a fringe or cult offspring of the 1960s, this practice is now becoming more mainstream and well-researched. It has become a $1 billion industry and shows no signs of slowing down. Large companies, such as Google, are heralding its benefits, and the healthcare community is embracing its virtues as an instrumental part of traditional, Western medicine. There is a strong advantage in both business and healthcare to be able to control your thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness helps us to understand that we can’t always control the events and circumstances in our lives, but we can control how we react to those situations. In fact, Dr. Carolyn Leaf, in her book Switch on Your Brain, says that, “Research shows that 75 to 98 percent of mental, physical, and behavioral illness comes from one’s thought life.”
So, what are mindfulness and meditation? You’ll often see these words interchanged. Are they just two words for the same thing? The best way to answer this common question is to look to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), often thought of as one of the most influential people in the field in the United States. He defines mindfulness as the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. This skill can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training. Therefore, meditation can be part of mindfulness. In fact, by practicing meditation you are giving your brain a mental workout on how to avoid letting thoughts and emotions run the show.
In my work, I refer to mindfulness as “mindful living.” It’s my way of showing how a practice of mindfulness can really be something we practice throughout our daily life. Wouldn’t we all handle the stresses of our daily lives so much better if we could teach our brain to stop, pay attention and be in the present moment without letting emotions and judgment take over?
I’m also a big proponent of the power of kindness. Can you wish kindness on someone in the past or in the future? Not really. But, in the present moment, you can. Mindful living is how we show up in our daily life. If you want to feel good, just the silent act of wishing someone to be happy can bring great benefits to you.
As the practice of mindfulness has moved from a fringe movement to mainstream, it has started to be more seriously considered by the medical community. Research has shown that mindfulness can have a positive impact on our bodies, even down to the level of our genetics. Wouldn’t we all appreciate having a treatment that could reduce doctor visits, sick days and pills to take, all with a better feeling of total well-being?
What does the research say and how are doctors and even hospitals bringing mindfulness into the world of Western medicine? Let’s explore a few areas.
Our DNA is not readily changed. However, there are factors that can influence the expression of our DNA. These factors are ”epi-genetic” or “above the genome.” These factors influence how our DNA is expressed or translated. This means that everything from exercise, diet, environmental exposure to chemicals, and our thoughts can influence the expression of our DNA. Erik R. Kandel, a Nobel Prize-winning neuropsychiatrist, shows how our thoughts and imaginations turn certain genes on and certain genes off, which changes the structure of neurons in the brain2.
We’ve all experienced episodes of pain. Pain can range from mild pain, which gradually goes away, to more severe and lasting forms, referred to as chronic pain. The opioid epidemic points to a rising usage of medication for the treatment of chronic pain. Millions of Americans are using prescription drugs in their fight against the debilitating pain in their life. Mindfulness has proven to be an effective way of managing pain, both transient and chronic.
A mindfulness practice lets one feel the pain and observe the sensations pain creates in the body. This mindful observation opens the door to being intimately familiar with the pain, while providing the keys to distance yourself from it. Feeling the pain in a new light gives you the freedom to be you and not your pain. Each time a flare-up arrives in your day, you can stop, observe the pain, distance yourself, understand it, and calmly see it as pain. Mindfulness helps by lessening the distressing thoughts and emotions often associated with chronic pain and providing a well-needed buffer between the pain and the emotional ups and downs chronic pain can cause.
In the late 1970’s a group of researchers (most notably Dr. Kabat-Zinn) developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for people with chronic pain. Combining mindfulness meditation and yoga in a series of daily practices, the researchers found that participants experienced a greater sense of well-being and the ability to function in social settings. The practice of MBSR can be done both privately and in community settings. Research has shown that both provide real improvements to the overall quality of life, and may even tone down pain perception pathways in the central nervous system3.
Who doesn’t love indulging in their favorite food or treat? Comfort food is just that, comforting. Eating is essential to maintaining a healthy body and life. What and how much we eat are key. Remember the old saying, “You are what you eat”? For some, eating can be a response to an external trigger. Instead of eating because of hunger, it becomes a comfort for triggers of stress, worry, boredom, or discomfort. Our brain rewires, and eating to comfort emotions becomes a habit. Undoing this rewiring can be difficult to change. Mindfulness can be an effective way to eat better, eat less, and ensure eating is associated with hunger.
Mindfulness helps us to pause and tune into feelings of hunger and satiety, prompting us to eat only when hungry, and to stop when full. Mindfulness also helps us gain a greater sense of nonjudgmental awareness. So, instead of grabbing a sugary drink or a sweet, mindfulness helps us to pause, reflect and decide. This gentle pause moment helps reduce automatic eating reactions. Using mindfulness to build self-compassion and loving kindness to oneself, it helps control thoughts of shame, guilt or even binge eating.
Other areas where doctors and researchers are using mindfulness as an integrative treatment include: cancer, depression, high blood pressure, heart attack recovery, and substance abuse. Neuroscientists have found that positive thoughts release a cascade of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. These feel-good neurotransmitters have a huge impact on our mood and emotions. Living in and appreciating the present moment helps us to avoid negative thoughts that can hijack our brain and brings us back to the joy in our lives.
In conclusion, it is great news for all of us that science has proven that our brain is continually changing in response to our environment. This concept, called neuroplasticity, means that our brain can rewire itself. This rewiring can occur just by changing our thoughts. It is all dependent on us. If you want to be joyful, then have joyful thoughts. It can be that simple.
Connie Porazka, Founder Retreat To Joy
Connie is Founder of Retreat to Joy whose mission is to build and transform individuals and companies through mindfulness so as to help grow and nurture a kinder Wichita community. Connie is a MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) teacher certified through UCSD. She believes that being present in your life is the path to more joy and less stress. You can find more information at www.retreattojoy.com or connect with Connie on Facebook at Retreat To Joy.
Here’s a simple meditation you can practice at anytime and anywhere called the Meditation of Joy.
Start by inhaling and exhaling three times. Think back to a joyful time. Smile. Continue to breathe deeply, filling your lungs with joyful thoughts.
When things get too overwhelming in your day and your mind is going a mile a minute, remember the acronym STOP.
Stop whatever you are doing.Take a long, slow conscious breath (or more). O Observe what is going on around you. Proceed mindfully with your day.
Simple ways to fit mindfulness into your day and create a home practice:
- Practice mindfulness during routine activities. Try bringing awareness to the daily activities you usually do on autopilot by paying more attention when you’re going through your day. Tune into your senses. This includes brushing your teeth, taking a shower, eating, doing household chores, walking, etc.
- Keep it short. Our brains respond better to bursts of mindfulness, so being mindful several times a day is more helpful than one long session. Focus on how your shoes feel on your feet in that moment, or give attention to any tightness in your shoulders or jaw. Try one-minute meditation, focusing on your breath, when you’re starting to feel stressed.
- Practice mindfulness while you wait. When you’re waiting, instead of whipping out your cell phone, bring your attention to your breath. Pay attention to what is going on around you. Tune into your senses and how your body feels.
- Do one thing at a time. There is a myth that multitasking makes us more productive. In reality, multitasking takes 20-40 percent more time than doing one task at a time. You don’t make as many mistakes or forget details when you focus.
- One of the most loving things we can do for others is to really listen and be fully present when talking to others, rather than getting caught up in our mind chatter, judging what the person is saying and thinking about what we’ll say next. Don’t just hear the words, really listen.
- Don’t rush. Take time to be still and do nothing at all – even 5 minutes. Go outside and feel the sun, breathe, listen to the sounds around you. Slow down and enjoy the moments.
- Practice meditation. We can’t just decide to be fluent in Spanish, we have to learn the language first. Practicing meditation is how to learn the language of mindfulness. Being more practiced in meditation helps us easily tap into mindfulness.
- Leaf, Carolyn. Switch on Your Brain. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2013.
- Kandel, Eric. In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. New York: Norton, 2006.
- Rosenzweig S, Greeson JM, Reibel DK, Green JS, Jasser SA, Beasley D. Mindfulness-based stress reduction for chronic pain conditions: variation in treatment outcomes and role of home meditation practice. J Psychosom Res.2010 Jan;68(1):29-36.
- Kattermana SN, Kleinmanb BM, Hooda MM, Nackersa LM, Corsicaa Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: A systematic review. Eating Behaviors. 2014 April; , 15(2):197-204