Dr. Doni discusses the amazing power of mindfulness and meditation on our health. She explains how they not only decrease stress but also build our resilience to it.
When it comes to approaching your health from the perspective of stress (as I like to do), one of the best things you can do is build your resilience to stress. That’s what neuroscience research shows.
We are all exposed to stress, now probably more than ever before, so the key to staying well is to do things that help your body recover from stress better. One effective way you can do that happens to be an activity that has been used for centuries – meditation.
I first learned about meditation 20 years ago when I was a naturopathic medical student. Since then, and as I continued to research stress, I have read study after study indicating the benefits of meditation including: improved mood; decreased anxiety; better sleep; decreased risk of heart attack; and perhaps most exciting, nerve healing (which was previously thought to be not possible in adults), resulting in higher IQ and creativity.
So I recently decided it was time for me to participate in a mindfulness and meditation course and experience the benefits first hand. There are many meditation courses available now, including some online programs – but I decided that I would prefer an in-person group class. I found one at a local park called Avalon Preserve; an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, as developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. I’m excited to share my experiences and insights with you.
What Is the Difference between Mindfulness and Meditation?
Mindfulness is actually a type of meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn says that, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Meditation in various forms, including transcendental meditation, induces a type of brain activity that is different than being alert or being asleep. It is actually 2 to 5 times more relaxing and restful than sleep and it is this deep state of relaxation which allows the body to heal from stress and, because it involves both sides of your brain, it helps build the communication pathways between the logical left brain and the creative right brain.
How Do Mindfulness and Meditation Work?
Both meditation and mindfulness allow your brain to reconcile everything that’s going on in your life and help bring your focus to the present moment. All of this helps you better connect with your intuition and stay out of a state of stress, even when you are not meditating.
They both also:
- Decrease cortisol – your stress hormone
- Increase serotonin and dopamine levels – the neurotransmitters that influence mood, sleep and focus
- Increase function of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, helping you organize and respond without being in a state of fear
- Positively influence growth factors and telomeres, which protect your genes (here is an article I wrote about telomeres if you want to learn more about this).
So by focusing your mind in a certain way, you can actually change your brain, your hormones and the way your genes influence your health – powerful stuff!
How to Start Meditating or Practicing Mindfulness
Meditation is often represented as sitting still, cross-legged on the floor, with your eyes closed. That is certainly one way to meditate, but it is also possible to meditate or practice mindfulness while sitting in a chair or doing activities such as walking, doing the dishes, brushing your teeth, eating, or showering.
Another form of mindfulness is biofeedback, which involves focusing your attention on your body to change your blood pressure or heart-rate variability. Personally, I like to practice mindfulness while taking care of our rescue cats and while taking our dog, Aphrodite, for a walk (you can read more about how animals help reduce our stress here).
A simple way to get started is to put your focus on just one thing. For example, you could put all your focus on the word “one.” Or you could put your focus on your breath – inhale slowly, exhale slowly, and repeat, noticing how each breath feels. Or you could focus on a “mantra” – a positive affirmation or thought, similar to a prayer.
Whatever you choose to focus on, each time you notice that your mind has wandered to another thought (and it will), quietly and calmly bring your attention back to that one thing. You could spend as little as 5 minutes or as long as an hour, or even several hours, practicing mindfulness.
During my first MBSR class we started by eating a raisin in a mindful way. We first picked up the raisin and looked at it. Then we felt it and smelled it. Finally, we put the raisin in our mouth, at first not biting into it, and then noticing how it tastes when we did bite into it. We chewed it at least ten times before swallowing it. A raisin never tasted so good! You could try this (as long as you are okay eating a raisin) as a way to start experiencing mindfulness.
Using Meditation to Decrease Stress
The more you practice, the easier it will become to integrate meditation and mindfulness into your daily life. The more you can do this, the better your body will be able to withstand stress, increasing your resilience and reducing the negative effects of stress on your health. Not only that, but you’ll also sleep better, allowing your body to heal even more. Studies show that even just 1 hour of meditation a week for 12 weeks will reduce stress and improve sleep.
These incredible benefits of meditation and mindfulness are exactly why I’ve included them in my Stress Remedy 7 and 21 day programs. Along with diet changes, exercise, and sleep support, the Stress Remedy programs include support for inserting mindfulness and other Stress Remedies into your routine.
Here are a few of my favorite resources, including some recommended by my patients – try them out and see how you feel:
- InsightTimer.com: offering guided meditations, as well as timers and sounds
- ZivaMeditation.com: offering online and in person meditation training
- HeadSpace.com: an online tool and app to help you meditate
- MindValleyAcademy.com: offering courses on mindfulness and more
- HeartMath.org: a website offering support to implement mindfulness
- Happiness Through Meditation: a book by my friend and colleague, Dr. Paul Epstein
Next in this exploration of approaching health from the perspective of stress, I will be covering another stress remedy – nature – and explaining how spending time in nature can help relieve stress and increase your resilience.
To be sure to receive my future articles about how to support your health, please sign up for my newsletter (and receive a free guide on how to recover from stress).
I’d love to hear about your experiences with mindfulness and meditation.
I will be presenting at New York Association of Naturopathic Physicians annual conference on Sunday, October 2, 2016 in New York City. Dr. Paul Epstein and I will be talking about integrating mind-body healing and stress solutions into approaches for patients with chronic conditions. Our presentation is called, “Addressing Chronic Conditions From the Perspective of Stress Using Mindful Healing, Foods, and Nutrients Instead of Medications.”
I hope you can join us – in person or online – all practitioners are welcome!
- Date: Sunday, October 2, 2016
- Time: 9 am to 6 pm
- Location: 3 West Club, 3 West 51st Street, NYC
Here’s the registration link, for your convenience.
19th September 2016