(via flickr user crdotx)
You are probably aware of the benefits of stopping for a moment to take a deep breath. Well, focused breathing in the form of meditation is particularly beneficial, and research continues to shed new light on its physical and mental benefits.
What is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness meditation began as a Buddhist tradition, and is now recognized by psychotherapists as a form of cognitive therapy.
Mindfulness is a seated meditation technique that focuses attention on breathing, bodily sensations and mental relaxation to achieve a state of active but open attention on your present state of being. In short, it encourages living in the moment.
What makes the mindfulness technique unique from other forms of meditation is that the primary focus is on one’s current physical state rather than on personal or societal improvement.
RELATED INFOGRAPHIC: WHY MEDITATION WORKS
Can mindfulness meditation soothe inflammation?
Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin found that mindfulness meditation was surprisingly effective in lowering stress-induced inflammation. Subjects were divided into two groups for the study. The first group participated in the Campus Health Enhancement Program, which merged nutritional education with exercise and music therapy, and the second group participated in the mindfulness meditation approach. Both programs required an equal amount of time, training and home practice.
Scientists then induced psychological stress using a tool called the Trier Social Stress Test, coupled with a capsaicin cream used to induce inflammation on the skin. Next, they collected immune and endocrine data, and that revealed that the mindfulness approach was more effective in reducing inflammation.
These findings are particularly interesting because there hadn’t been any research into the specific ways that mindfulness is beneficial, or into who specifically could benefit from its practice. The Wisconsin scientists believe that if combined with other existing health regimens that include social interaction and support, mindfulness may be able to further reduce inflammation – particularly in those suffering from inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Offering stress management and relaxation classes as a form of preventive care would likely also be cost-effective and beneficial for those living with a chronic inflammatory condition.
Mindfulness meditation and the brain
Until recently, mindfulness was considered merely a way to focus our attention, but researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) developed a model to better understand how mindfulness engages the brain.
The researchers were able to identify six active neuropsychological processes exercised during mindfulness practice. Ultimately, these processes begin with an intent and incentive to attain mindfulness, followed by a consciousness of one’s negative habits. Once this occurs, a person can begin to alter their emotional state to recover faster from mental disturbances. This suggests that through practice, we would have the ability to mold our emotional self–increasing empathy and reducing negative tendencies, such as attachment to material possessions or aversion to things we dislike.
Who else can benefit?
Aside from the many conditions that are exacerbated by stress, mindfulness has shown promise in relieving loneliness in older adults and reducing depression in new mothers.
In older adults, loneliness is a risk factor for heart disease, Alzheimer’s and early death. Researchers at UCLA recently reported that through an eight-week meditation program, loneliness in older adults can be significantly reduced. This coincides with mindfulness meditation’s anti-inflammatory properties because loneliness is associated with increased activity of inflammation-related genes. These findings also suggest that mindfulness benefits the immune system, since inflammation is a prime detractor in overall immune health.
Additionally, women at a high risk for postpartum depression are often reluctant to take antidepressants during and after their pregnancy out of concern for their infant’s safety, leaving few other options for prevention and treatment. Now research supports the finding that mindfulness yoga may be an effective treatment.
A study from the University of Michigan found that psychiatrically high risk women who participated in a 10-week mindfulness yoga intervention saw significant reductions in depressive symptoms, as well as a stronger attachment to their babies in the womb.
Everyone can benefit from mindfulness meditation, but some can more than others. There are no negative side effects of mindfulness, and there are the positive benefits of stress reduction and relaxation. Reducing inflammation and boosting immune health can help fight a broad range of ailments, from a stubbed toe to chronic inflammatory conditions.
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