Is there anything more incredible than the human brain? Neuroscientists call it ‘the most complex structure in the universe’. No small statement! The average human brain has approximately 86 billion neurons. That’s nearly as many stars there are in the galaxy. All in the confines of an area the size of two clenched fists.
While mindfulness techniques like meditation have been around for thousands of years, it’s only in recent times that scientists are uncovering the full effect that mindfulness has on our brains. One of the biggest discoveries has been the process called neuroplasticity. This explains how the brain can change, literally change, from lived experiences. In simple terms, mindfulness strengthens the good parts of your brain and helps calm the parts that stress you out. This great video from Smiling Mind explains exactly what happens to your brain when you practise mindfulness.
Mindfulness has certainly become flavour of the month. Many workplaces now offer it to their employees and we are seeing more and more schools and universities providing mindfulness training to their students.
The research tells us that practising mindfulness does have some benefits for mental health wellbeing and for managing depression and anxiety. It is also helpful when it comes to managing some long-term physical conditions, helping the patient to better deal with pain or discomfort.
Many people who practise mindfulness report a number of tangible benefits, such as:
More flexibility in their thinking
Greater ability to focus
Less rumination (when the mind gets over chatty!)
Better stress management
Higher satisfaction with relationships and quality of life
But what exactly is mindfulness? Essentially, it is the practice of being in the present moment, knowing where your mind’s attention is and learning to keep your attention where you want it to be. It also often involves stepping back from one’s own strong emotional reactions to life’s challenges, and seeing things more objectively, without getting entangled and swept up in the feelings.
Typically, mindfulness involves practising meditation exercises on a daily basis. This usually involves sitting in a quiet place, turning your mind’s attention to your body and your breathing, and focussing on the sounds and sensations around you. With practice, you gradually learn to tame that constant chatter we all have in our minds. The guiding voice of a teacher or on an app is really helpful if you are new to meditation exercises. You might consider joining a local mindfulness class, or even just downloading one of the excellent mindfulness apps on your phone such as Smiling Mind. This is very convenient as you can practice the mindfulness exercises with headphones at a time and place that best suits you.
As a GP, I have found that this approach has been most helpful for my patients, especially those who are coping with mental health or physical health issues. There is a lot of secondary worry and stress and this can exacerbate symptoms, so developing some skills in mindfulness exercises can be a great way to calm the mind and provide some time out from worry and stress.
For all of us, our minds often tend to get caught up thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness helps you to keep your thoughts in the present moment. As you practice, you tend to get better at calming the mind and keeping things in perspective.
As with any psychological approach there is always some risk, though it’s fair to say for most people learning mindfulness meditation, the risk is very low. As a caution, people who are experiencing serious mental illness ought to discuss if it’s a good idea for them with their mental health professional.
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