Mindfulness and Health: This is Why it Works

Mindfulness and Health: Why It Works

We’re still learning what there is to know about mindfulness. One thing we know with absolute certainty is that it’s stellar for mental health. What we haven’t so sure about is how it actually works.

Recently, Carnegie Mellon University’s J David Creswell, whose work on the effects of mindfulness meditation has been at the cutting edge of the field, has provided the first evidence-based biological explanation of how mindfulness training works to reduce and affect mental and physical health. Here’s what they’ve found:

When people experience stress, there is decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that looks after conscious thinking and planning. 

At the same time, activity is increased in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex, the areas of the brain that initiate the body’s stress response.

Research seems to indicate that the effectiveness of mindfulness lies in the way it reverses these responses during stress. It increases activity in the pre-frontal cortex and decreases the physiological stress response.

Here is where the link between mental health and physical health comes in. We know that when the body’s stress response is repeatedly activated, this increases the risk of diseases that are made worse by stress, such as depression, anxiety, HIV and heart disease.

Mindfulness reduces the subjective experience of stress. When this happens, the physiological stress response will also be turned down – less of the neurochemicals that are triggered by stress surging through the body and doing damage.

The research around mindfulness is exploding and we are still unlocking its secrets. We probably will be for some time. Without a doubt though, there are a wealth of benefits to be gained from making it part of a daily routine. Five minutes a day will make a difference, but most studies seem to suggest the greatest benefit comes with at least 25-30 minutes a day, though the more the better. For a more detailed explanation of the benefits of mindfulness, and how to practice it, see here.

 

5 Comments

Kat

By the way, after reading this article, I felt more relaxed. I just wonder if mindfulness a way to meditate or a way of thinking in life and work?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Mindfulness is a form of meditation, but after a while it could very well change the way you start to think about things and react or respond to the things that happen in your life.

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Diane Conier

Question! My husband died 12 years ago of Bowel Cancer aged 50. I was aged 47 and have 3 sons.
At the time of their fathers death they where 20, 17 and 15. Whilst the younger 2 Seemed to have accepted the death and moved forward my eldest son seems to be trapped in grief, regret and guilt and has suffered greatly over the past 12 years. He tells me that he wants to move forward with his life but has soo much hurt and can’t seem to let go. He has suffered ?? bi polar and personality disorder since his father died but this is stable at the moment as he has had lots of coucelling. How can I his mother help him move forward . ??

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Hey Sigmund

It’s sounds as though your son is getting the support he needs to move forward (through counselling and through you) and he sounds committed to doing this, which is the most important part. As his mother, the best thing you can do is to be there and accept him where he is at. It sounds as though you are a loving, supportive, available presence for him and you can’t don’t underestimate the power of that. The main thing is to let him set the pace and not to have any expectations of him that he’s not ready for. Just keep loving him and being available for him. It sounds as though you are doing exactly what he needs. Make sure you are getting the support you need too. You’ll be better for the people you love if you’re strong and supported yourself. Your family have been through a lot but it sounds like you have been the loving steady presence your family needs. They are lucky to have you.

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Annette B

Yes I Agee. Having suffered from anxiety for over 50 yrs I would encourage him to take a course on mindfulness it has done more for me to change my life then medication and talk therapy.

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One of our rituals was in the week before Christmas, we’d go shopping and each kiddo would choose a keepsake decoration for the tree. This would forever be their decoration. To make sure we’d remember who owned what (a year is a long time!) I wrote their name and year on the box. The idea is that when they leave home, they’ll have a collection of special decorations for their own tree, plump with throwbacks (‘Oh I remember when we bought this!).

Then of course there was Christmas morning. Santa would leave a note on the table and bootprints on the front path, which smelled remarkably like talcum powder. So magical the way the snow was under the boot and never melted, even in an Australian summer! But that’s the magic of Christmas, right?!

We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year.

It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas, aside from the presents.

They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be a biggie. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with pancakes at breakfast last Christmas. (Ice-cream at breakfast?! Told you Christmas was magical!!). 

If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (remembering reindeer groceries can be so hard sometimes!)

You’d be surprised what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.

What are your Christmas rituals? Let’s share ideas in the comments.♥️
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Because sales are the best, and Christmas is the best, and helping kiddos find their brave is the very best of all! So, to celebrate the end of the year (because truly, it's been a year hasn't it), and to help you settle brave hearts for next year, or night times, or separations, or, you know, all the things, we're taking 25% off books and plushies in the Hey Sigmund shop.

There's no need to enter a code. The books and bundles are already marked with their special sale prices. You'll find them all there - plushies, books, bundles - doing shopping cartwheels, beside themselves excited about helping your young ones feel bigger than anxiety, and shimmy on to brave. 
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It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. 

Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay, and trust in your reaction if things don’t go to plan. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 
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Strong steady breathing will reverse the fight or flight physiology that causes nausea, butterflies, or sick or sore tummies during anxiety. BUT telling an anxious brain to take a strong steady breath will potentially make anxiety worse unless strong steady breathing feels familiar. Practising during calm times will make it familiar. 

During anxiety we’re dealing with their amygdala, and it wants short shallow breathing to conserve oxygen. It doesn’t want strong steady breathing and will work hard to resist this. 

An anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. A few minutes of strong steady breathing each day will set up a strong neural pathway to make strong breathing more automatic and accessible during anxiety. 

In the meantime though, you can do it for them. This is the magic of co-regulation. When you do strong steady breathing during their anxiety, it will calm your nervous system which will eventually calm theirs. You will catch their anxiety, and this will feed into their anxiety. Your strong steady breathing is the circuit breaker. They will catch your anxiety, but they will also catch your calm. Don’t worry if this takes a few minutes (and maybe a few more after that). Anxious brains are strong, powerful, beautiful brains working hard to protect. Breathe and be with. This will open the way for that distressed young nervous system to find its way home. And you don’t need to do more than that.♥️
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Needs and behaviour can get tangled up and treated as one. When you can, separate the need from the behaviour. Give voice to the need - let it find a way to breathe - and redirect the behaviour. 

The need might always be clear, especially if it’s being smothered by angry shouting words. If we stifle the behaviour without acknowledging the need, the need stays hungry. Help usher it into the light by making it clear that you’re ready to receive it. Then wait. Wait for the big behaviour to ease, for bodies to calm, and angry voices to soften - but keep the way to you open. ‘You’re a great kid and I know you know that behaviour wasn’t okay. Talk to me about what’s happening for you.’

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