There is a wealth of sound and scientifically backed research into the quantifiable benefits of mindfulness. Here are some of the health and wellbeing benefits of regularly practising mindfulness.
1. Increases happiness
Mindfulness helps us to stay in the present moment, which is where life happens, and away from mind wandering and negative thoughts which inhibit happiness. Research has proven that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, therefore being mindful and in the moment can instantly increase happiness.
2. Increases resilience and helps manage stress
Stress and busy ness are constants in today’s world. Mindfulness cannot take away these stressful situations, but it can give you the tools to choose to respond to the stress in a more helpful manner. It can also stop us from triggering the stress response in the body, which helps minimise the negative health and wellbeing effects of stress on our body and mind.
3. Mindfulness reduces the severity of symptoms of depression and reduces the likelihood of relapses in depression
Mindfulness has been proven to be an effective tool at reducing the recurrence rate of depression over 12 months by 40–50% compared with usual care.
4. Reduces anxiety and inflammation and increases feelings of relaxation and wellbeing
The Vagus Nerve is a complex network that connects our organs to our brain and that has the ability to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system, which switches on the rest and recharge settings in our body and is the opposite of the stress response. Stimulating this system makes us feel calmer and reduces inflammation and stress on the body. Inflammation is responsible for many common illnesses including auto immune diseases, and cancer. Deep breathing helps stimulate the Vagus Nerve. 80% of the nerves in the Vagus travel to the head therefore stimulating this network enables the brain to receive more intelligence from the body. This gives us a greater understanding of what our body is telling us.
A brain and body working in harmony helps us incorporate all the intelligence transmitted from neurons in the mind, heart and gut into our decision making, and at the same time stimulating the Vagus Nerve promotes a sense of relaxation and wellbeing.
5. Increases focus and attention
Mindfulness builds gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with the executive functions that are higher level cognitive processes such as decision making, planning, problem solving, self-control and control of emotions. Building this area of the brain gives us the opportunity to mentally perform to the best of our capability, which can help us in our work and relationships.
6. Helps manage pain
People with illness or pain can benefit from mindfulness as it can help them notice the gaps in the pain and other pleasant sensations in their body. This knowledge and focus on the positive can help provide some relief and change the mindset to be more positive. Mindfulness can also allow a state of acceptance of the pain. This ability to feel the pain rather than resist it can help reduce the secondary pain and panic that is often experienced and caused by the potential implications or memory of pain. Sitting with the pain can direct energy to it in order to allow it to flow through, rather building resistance and blocking or fighting the pain. This can be especially useful during labour and childbirth when resisting the pain can slow the process.
7. Mindfulness can slow down the ageing process
Time and stress age the body and mindfulness can help reverse this trend through its ability to increase production of telomerase. Telomerase helps to rebuild and lengthen telomeres after cells divide. Telomeres are protein caps on the end of each chromosome. During cell division, the chromosome replicates, a process that shortens the telomeres. When telomeres become too short, the cell can no longer divide and replicate which increases ageing and age related diseases. Elissa Ebel and Elizabeth Blackburn from the University of California published a book called The Telomere Effect (Grand Central Publishing) in 2017 to explain the results of their research, Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity and psychological mediators. June 2011. Jacobs, Epel., et al.
8. Stops the rollercoaster of unhelpful thoughts
Very often our mind is so distracted thinking about the past or future that it fails to pick up the signals from our senses as to what is going on now. This constant living in our heads also detaches us from our surroundings which gives the thinking mind more power to keep us occupied ruminating about the ‘what ifs’. This can be exhausting and can feel like we go over and over the same troubling topics. Mindfulness can help us look at these thoughts and choose to allow them to pass by without spending the brain’s finite energy on repeating them. Instead this energy can be diverted into more fulfilling areas.
9. Gets us back into the present so we don’t miss it
Being caught up in our thoughts also means we miss so much of what is going on around us, the beauty of nature and our interaction with friends, family and all other beings we come into contact with every day. Instead we live a lonely and often illusionary version of life through our thoughts. A primary benefit of mindfulness is therefore that it opens our senses to the magic of the world and our community around us.
10. Increases positivity
Our brains are wired for negativity, as throughout evolution it is awareness of threats that kept us alive. The evolution of the hardware of the brain cannot change as fast as we would like, however the brain in itself is neuroplastic and mindfulness can help us rewire the hardware to choose a more positive and optimistic response to stress and daily events.
Furthermore, our minds are unable to differentiate between what is fact and what is fiction; we believe our own story and store this. Every time we remember, we recall our version of stored events which can lead to very distorted thinking, which in turn influences future thoughts and behaviours. Mindfulness helps keep the filters in the brain clean and therefore thoughts experienced through the five senses can do their job better. This can help us relate to the people and situations in a raw sense, making it easier to accept people as they are without taking things so personally.
11. Helps us become more compassionate to ourselves and others
Harsh words and judgemental thoughts and behaviour can become an entrenched way of living and relating to ourselves and others. We are often quick to label ourselves in black and white terms and we can become our own biggest critic. We must be able to show ourselves compassion before we are able to treat others in this way. Mindfulness can teach us self-compassion and there are mindfulness exercises that literally grow new self-compassionate neural pathways in the brain to enable us to increase compassion. This helps us become kinder to ourselves and also helps enhance our relationships with others. This can lead to happiness and contentment and the ability to enjoy a closer sense of community. Community and Connection to others has been shown to be major factors on not only our quality of life as we age, but also to our mortality rate.