For many of us, from the moment we awaken until we close our eyes at night, our days are spent in overdrive. We race to accomplish to-do lists, process a barrage of news and information and struggle to find meaningful time with family and friends, not to mention a few minutes to care for ourselves.
Some may accept this as our new normal, yet it’s important to note that this generation’s fast-paced, high-stress way of life is taking a serious toll on our health. Anxiety and depression are on the rise in the U.S., as are conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity, which can be linked to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. The question is: what can we do to put on the brakes and help reverse this harmful trend?
What if the solution was as simple as paying more attention to your body and your feelings? At its most basic, this is the definition of mindfulness. UVA School of Nursing Dean Dorrie Fontaine, RN, PhD, who is actively promoting mindfulness among clinicians and nursing students, provides a broader explanation: “Author and scientist Susan Bauer-Wu describes mindfulness as a way of being and relating to the world around us. It is paying attention to our experiences and embracing an attitude of openness and curiosity, being open to what is happening around us without judgment and without being tied to the outcome,” she says.
Mindfulness, in theory, requires a shift in focus. But what does mindfulness look like in practice? Fontaine explains that a good way to begin incorporating mindfulness into your every day is to adopt the three Cs. These include:
- Choosing a contemplative practice
Yoga, tai chi and meditation are examples of activities that allow you to pause and channel your focus internally on your breath and your body.
- Carving out time for gratitude
Keep a journal in which you write down three things you’re grateful for each day.
- Cultivating the practice of kindness
Helping others around you provides an opportunity for positive human interaction
Easy as Breathing
On a lesser scale, even taking a brief moment to reflect is beneficial. “There is a lot you think you can’t do because it takes too much time,” says Fontaine. “However, there is something called a micro reflective practice, in which you take one breath and, as you exhale, you focus on that breath and how you feel at that moment. It only takes a few seconds, but it can calm and focus the mind.”
“I take a few minutes at a red light, just before going to bed and after exercising to practice deep breathing,” says UVA cardiologist and Club Red clinical ambassador Brandy Patterson, MD. “Even those few minutes can help release tension and clear my thoughts.”
Short- and Long-Term Benefits
Multiple studies have shown that mindfulness can positively impact the body in many ways. Mindfulness practices increase multiple neurotransmitters in the body, such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin (sometimes referred to as “happy hormones”). In addition, mindfulness can decrease the stress hormone cortisol, which has been linked to conditions like diabetes and hypertension. “It not only improves our physiological responses to stress, it also strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure and heart rate,” says Patterson.
Long term, Ina Stephens, MD, RYT, pediatrician and co-director of the Medical Yoga Initiative at UVA, says that mindfulness has been shown to alter the makeup of the brain. “Studies have revealed that those who practice mindfulness meditation have an increased thickness and grey matter in their prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for executive function, problem solving and decision-making, as well as the hippocampus, the part of the limbic system that governs learning, emotional regulation and memory,” she says. “At the same time, the amygdala shrinks. The amygdala is the threat center of the brain, which responds to fear, stress and anxiety.”
If you would like to learn more about adopting mindfulness as a complementary approach to overall wellness, contact UVA Primary and Specialty Care Pantops, a clinic that combines primary care services with integrative medicine, which includes medical yoga, meditation and more.