Do the holidays and post-election happenings have you stressed out?
If you’re so stressed out you feel like it’s affecting your health, you’re probably right. Chronic stress has been linked to conditions like heart disease, anxiety, diabetes, and depression. We’ve all been told we need to lower our stress levels, but who has the time? Is there a simple way to relax that actually works? Consider mindfulness meditation. Just a few minutes of contemplation every day has been shown to reduce stress, improve attention, and much more.
Don’t forget that the most proven, accessible and useful tool is available for you to start and use at any time – meditation.
Put simply, mindfulness means focusing on the present. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created a program called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR) that has brought meditation into the mainstream, mindfulness involves paying deliberate, nonjudgmental attention to the moment. This neutral mindset helps us see our worries and concerns for what they are—just thoughts—and allows us to let them go. In a study conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, people with generalized anxiety who followed a stress-reduction program based on mindfulness were considerably less anxious than those in a control group who were taught other stress management techniques. Another study found health care professionals who participated in an MSBR program reported significantly less stress and more self-compassion compared to a control group. Researchers have even found mindfulness to be helpful in treating serious mental health issues like obsessive compulsive disorder and drug addiction.
For those of you wanting more tangible proof of meditation’s benefits, consider this: mindfulness actually changes your brain. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, conducted studies involving brain scans of meditators. She found that people who had been meditating for a long time had increased grey matter in the auditory and sensory cortex, which she attributes to the mindful attention paid to breathing, sounds, and other stimuli during meditation. She also discovered more grey matter in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with memory and decision making. According to Lazar, meditators in their fifties had the same amount of gray matter in one part of the prefrontal cortex as people in their twenties in spite of the fact that the cortex is known to shrink as we age.
Not only does meditation cause concrete change, it can do so relatively quickly. While Lazar’s initial study looked at long-term meditators, subsequent research showed increases in subjects’ brain volume after just eight weeks of meditation. Another study by J. David Creswell and his team at Carnegie Mellon University and published in the June 2014 issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology looked at whether “low doses” of meditation would affect stress response. When completing nerve-wracking tasks assigned to them, participants who received just three days of 25-minute mindfulness training sessions reported lower perceived stress levels than a control group.
The takeaway? Even if you’re short on time (and who isn’t?) you can reap the substantial stress-busting benefits of mindfulness meditation. Many guided meditations are available online for free, and you can even download apps like Stop, Breathe, & Think that allow you to sample the basics of mindfulness.
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He was most recently National Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer of a national medical practice, but is available to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.