Mindfulness Can Improve Health and Wellness

The stress of daily life can take many forms: financial pressures, family demands or crises, and professional or occupational tensions. These circumstances can produce anxiety, fatigue, sleeplessness, and other physical conditions that can be harmful to our mental and physical health.
An emerging practice to address these concerns and improve individual health is called mindfulness.
Mindfulness came into practice more than 30 years ago. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of modern-day mindfulness who established the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass Medical School in the late 1970s, defines it as follows: paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, expands on the definition: “being completely aware of what’s happening in the present — of all that’s going on inside and all that’s happening around you. It means not living your life on autopilot. Instead, a person experiences life as it unfolds moment to moment, good and bad, and without judgment or preconceived notions.”
More than 2,500 research studies have investigated mindfulness and the mind-body connection and its effects on a variety of medical conditions — anxiety, depression, cancer, acute and chronic pain, and chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
Most of those studies have shown positive outcomes. Patients reported feeling better, more relaxed, and more compassionate; blood pressures and heart rates were reduced to healthful levels. Supported by those studies, mindfulness is now reaching mainstream medicine. As testimony to its acceptance, NIH, the largest biomedical research agency in the world, has allotted $100 million to expand research into mindfulness.
Mindfulness can mean several things. In a historical sense, it can mean ‘I’m aware of what’s going on,’ or ‘I’m paying attention.’ In a clinical sense, however, it is a way for people to participate in their own healthcare by raising awareness of their thoughts, physical sensations, and surroundings. Practicing mindfulness leads patients to concentrate on the present, not to worry about things that happened in their past and not to agonize or be fearful of what might come in the future.
A key to mindfulness is being non-judgmental. All of us can be negative and critical about people and things around us. However, when a person becomes more non-judgmental, more positively focused, and more accepting, he or she will be able to assess and react to situations in the present moment without preconceived ideas.
People who experience difficulties, whether they are medical, social, or emotional, can use mindfulness to train their mind to deal with those difficulties in a way that opens up new possibilities, instead of reacting out of habit or doing the same thing over and over again.
It is important to remember that the purpose of mindfulness is not to replace a medicine or other therapy, but to improve our ability to relate to the circumstances of our lives. Mindfulness can be healing in making us adapt to our circumstances. It can also be personally revealing, in opening up different possibilities for us to manage those circumstances.
The mindfulness approach is a way to complement and enhance individual health, and it can help people of all ages and in many circumstances: families of patients undergoing serious medical conditions, caregivers who experience increasing amounts of stress in dealing with major illnesses such as dementia, or patients themselves who must deal with chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or depression. It is also becoming increasingly useful in treating addiction, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even pain.
For more information on mindfulness, including the science behind it, how it is learned, and how it can be helpful in health and well-being, visit www.mindfulnet.org. For a video discussion, visit www.physicianfocus.org/mindfulness.