Mindfulness: Improving your health through mental and emotional fitness

By Anique Pegeron

Photo: Pexels

ANN ARBOR - Stressed out?

Of course you are. In today’s fast-paced society, all of us experience stress in one form or another: whether it comes from demands at work, raising a family, unexpected life events, or too many tasks on your to-do-list, stress has become the standard. But this new norm comes with consequences; beyond just being unpleasant, it has serious repercussions for your mental, emotional and physical well being.

Consequences of Stress

The American Institute of Stress draws from extensive research on the subject to list 50 different consequences of stress. Among them are:

•    Headaches and musculoskeletal pain
•    Digestive problems
•    Depression and moodiness
•    Anxiety and frequent worry/nervousness
•    Insomnia and sleeping issues
•    Difficulty concentrating/forgetfulness
•    Trouble breathing/respiratory issues
•    Chest pain, palpitations, rapid pulse
•    Reduced immunity
•    Chronic fatigue
•    Excessive weight gain or loss

And the list goes on… painting a grim picture of the effects of stress on your body, mind, and mood.


Combating Stress Through Mindfulness 

Luckily, there’s something you can do about it.

Mindfulness, an age-old practice tailored for modern times and backed by 40+ years of scientific research, is your tool to combating the negative outcomes of chronic stress. Much like building muscle by doing reps at the gym, practicing mindfulness builds the brain’s capacity to remain present, calm and focused -- enhancing your ability to handle whatever life throws your way.

And rigorous scientific studies prove, again and again, that mindfulness not only enhances your mental and emotional wellness, but it has a significant positive effect on your physical health as well. Sleep quality, digestion, heart rate, hormones, energy, immunity -- regular mindfulness practice improves it all.

Not only that, but mindfulness has been found to improve the structure and function of the brain itself.

In 2011, a team led by Harvard scientists at the Massachusetts General Hospital did a neuroimaging study to measure how mindfulness affects the brain. Participants with no prior experience were trained in mindfulness for eight weeks, each clocking 20-30 minutes of practice per day.

Magnetic resonance images taken before and after found a significant positive change in the amount of gray matter in the areas of the brain responsible for stress, memory, self-awareness, and empathy. Since the brain is at the steering wheel of both the body and the mind, these changes translate to widespread effects on overall health.

How Mindfulness Works

But how could a mental practice have such powerful effects?

The answer has its roots in evolution. While our society has developed at an incredible pace over the last hundred or so years, our caveman brains are still catching up; the way our brains and bodies function took hundreds of thousands of years to evolve, and we can’t just upgrade them with a click of a button. (Come on, Google, get on it).

Now, pause and imagine what life was like for cavemen. Was it generally safe? Was it easy to survive? Nope. But if you had a brain that was constantly on the alert for potential threats, and a body that responded to these threats with a rapid heart rate and strong muscles to help you fight or flee that danger, then your chances for survival were MUCH better.

So over time, we developed a genius threat detection system in our brain -- called the "amygdala" -- and a corresponding physiological system to boost our chances for survival -- A.K.A., the nervous system. When our amygdala detects a threat it immediately shifts our bodies into "fight or flight" mode, which equips us with the strength we need to fight that saber-toothed tiger, or get the heck out of there.

Luckily, these days, saber tooth tigers are long gone. But our brains and bodies didn’t get the memo. Our threat detection system gets triggered by daily modern stressors such as running late for a meeting, dealing with a temper tantrum, having too many tasks on the to-do list, and juggling the myriad responsibilities of family, work and personal life.

This is where mindfulness comes in. Through a simple daily practice, your brain and body learn to shift out of "fight or flight" mode and into "rest and restore" mode -- that ideal physiological state with all the healthy benefits for your mind, body, and mood.

Starting with a few minutes a day, this practice is a great addition to your fitness routine, and it may just transform your life.

Starting your Practice

Mindfulness is all about shifting your awareness away from thoughts about the past and future, and into your direct experience of the present moment. Rather than worrying or going over your to-do list, you sense into the present moment -- through the breath, the senses, and body awareness. Any time your mind wanders, simply bring it back to feeling each moment as it passes, maintaining an attitude of acceptance, curiosity and compassion.

Start with your breath; simply feel it coming in and out of your body, and any time you notice yourself lost in thought, bring your attention back to breathing without judgment. This may sound a little abstract, but it’s not; each time you do this, you are concretely training your brain and body to function at a more optimal level.

Looking for more guidance? Check out my website to find tips and options to help you start your own at-home mindfulness practice. And stay tuned for next month’s mindfulness article for step-by-step tools to help you reduce stress, improve your health, and live your life to its fullest.

(Unless, of course, you’ve got actual saber-toothed tigers to worry about. In that case, just stick with the stress).

Anique Pegeron is a Mindfulness Teacher and Coach at Mindful World and Grove Emotional Health Collaborative in Ann Arbor, Mi. Visit her website www.mindful-world.com for information on individual mindfulness coaching, group classes, workshops, and more.

This story is sponsored by Applied Fitness Solutions. AFS provides group fitness classes and personal wellness coaching at their three area locations: Ann Arbor, Rochester Hills, and Plymouth. Learn more about AFS.

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