How Being Mindful Protects Against Stress And Anxiety

When you see people sitting cross-legged, palms up, and in a seemingly peaceful trance, you may wonder whether the benefits of mindful meditation are real. Is it just a handy placebo effect for some new-age believers?

Trying to meditate for the first time can seem impossible, so it’s understandable you’d feel that nagging doubt. However, meditation falls under a broader category of mindfulness, and many studies have shown that the effects are genuine.

Being mindful and focused actually changes your brain, staving off stress, anxiety, and many other common health problems.

What is mindfulness?

Defining mindfulness can be tricky—it comes from Buddhist meditation, but you don’t need to follow any one path to be mindful. Berkeley’s Greater Good explains mindfulness has two essential components:

  • Staying mentally in the moment, which includes focus on thoughts, feelings, sensations, and surroundings.
  • Accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment.

Activities for mindfulness

Meditation is one of the most studied modalities of mindfulness. However, says most recognize these other activities as ways to harness that inner calm and peace.

  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Qigong
  • Centering prayer
  • Chanting

The science behind mindfulness

Scientists have shown a growing interest in mindfulness and its ability to affect us on a psychological level. Although many were skeptical, researchers now agree it’s an important tool for regulating stress and anxiety.

Dr. Elizabeth Hoge told Harvard Health Publications mindfulness is helpful in treating anxiety because it teaches people how to take back control of their own minds. Many people who have anxiety can’t seem to get away from negative thoughts about themselves, situations, and the surrounding people.

Pretty soon, those thoughts spiral out of control and the worst possible scenarios seem like the most likely outcomes. Mindfulness asks you to recognize your thoughts and fears, but from a more objective position. Then, let them pass, which is one reason it’s so effective.

But don’t rest your faith in the words of one psychologist—an analysis of 47 studies on meditation published in JAMA also came to the same conclusions—meditation helped reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

It changes how you react emotionally

Mindfulness helps train your brain to react to situations differently. It doesn’t dull your emotions, but it can help regulate them, so you stay on a more even keel.

The American Psychological Association cites a study that examined people who had practiced mindful meditation for varying lengths of time, from one month to 29 years.

The people who meditated performed better on a mental task while simultaneously looking at disturbing pictures than a group of people that didn’t meditate. Instead of letting your emotions get the better of you, mindfulness helps people move beyond them to focus on a situation on a more practical level.

The structures in your brain also change

Most strikingly, when you meditate, your brain changes. A neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Dr. Sara Lazar, conducted two groundbreaking studies on meditation and how it affects the brain.

In an interview with the Washington Post, she explains that her first study showed people who meditate have more gray matter in several parts of the brain, mainly the sensory regions but also the frontal cortex, which explains why meditation has shown so many health benefits.

However, Dr. Lazar wondered if her results were skewed—maybe the people who meditated had more gray matter to start with. In a second study, she found people who didn’t meditate, took brain scans, then asked them to meditate for 40 minutes a day and compared them to a group that used other stress-reduction techniques.

Even after just eight weeks, the group that meditated had developed four regions of their brain says Dr. Lazar:

  • Posterior cingulate—helps control focus
  • Left hippocampus—involved in memory and cognition
  • Temporoparietal junction—allows people to see a situation from someone else{s perspective and is involved in empathy and compassion
  • Pons—deals with many neurotransmitters

Significantly, another area of the brain reduced in size, the amygdala. Since it regulates stress, fear, and anxiety and is essential in controlling the fight-or-flight response people talk about so much, you can see why mindfulness is such a helpful tool in reducing stress and anxiety.

As you can see, the benefits of mindfulness are great, and even just eight weeks of meditating can show improvement. However, you should be cautious about trying to treat anxiety yourself. If you have chronic anxiety, you shouldn’t suffer in silence—speak to your doctor and develop a plan to reduce your stress together.

If you’re just looking for ways to conquer everyday stressors and find prolonged peace, trying the mindful activities above is safe for all ages.

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