Just Breathe: What Mindfulness Can Do For You by Jen Hamilton, Licensed Educational Psychologist
There has been a lot of talk recently, both in the media and at Nobles, about mindfulness. We all have a sense that mindfulness must be really good for you (otherwise, why all the hype?) but it is not always clear what mindfulness is, or why it might be beneficial to your well-being. Simply put, mindfulness is both a deliberate act AND a way of being. When you deliberately practice mindfulness, you are setting aside a few quiet moments to focus solely on your breath. By breathing slowly and deeply and directing all of your attention to the 'in and out' of your breath, you are both calming your body (lowering heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, all of which have the added benefit of calming your mind as well) and training yourself to let go of the anxious chatter in your head. The goal with an intentional mindfulness practice is not to achieve a perfectly clear mind, but rather to learn to accept that your mind is constantly racing. Every time you notice your mind moving away from the breath, you can gently return to focusing on the breath. It is a practice in self-compassion and flexibility, something that we all could stand a little more of in our lives.
When we talk about mindfulness as a way of being, it means being present in the moment and being fully mindful of whatever you are doing at that time. By training yourself to be in the moment, you become less focused on anxious thoughts about the past and the future. When you cut down on multi-tasking and pay more attention to your surroundings, you are more open to the beauty around you (whether a soft breeze on your face as you walk to lunch, or the way your son's eyes twinkle as he tells you about a proud moment in his day...these things are worth noticing and remembering!)
The big question: Is it worth incorporating mindfulness into your busy life? Recent research conducted by Harvard-affiliated researches at Mass General Hospital show that there are structural differences between the brains of those who practice mindfulness and those who do not. MRI studies definitively find increased density in the hippocampus, important for memory and learning, and in parts of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. MRI studies also show that practicing mindfulness causes shrinking of the amygdala, the part of the brain which mediates anxiety and stress and is known to be enlarged during adolescence. A recent study referenced in TIME magazine reported that students who practice mindfulness show a 15% improvement in their math scores after participating in a meditation-mindfulness training program. Will every person be guaranteed the same benefits if they incorporate a mindfulness practice into their lives? Probably not. Some people, particularly those who suffer from anxiety, may notice benefits that are even greater than those described above, while others may not notice any real changes other than learning how to slow down and be more in the moment. It's up to each of us to decide if it's worth making the time to give it a try.
At Nobles, we have begun incorporating deliberate mindfulness practice into the Personal Development (PD) curriculum, and in the counseling office we often use mindfulness training a way to help students cope with anxiety. We also have an employee mindfulness group that has a great following. Knowing what we now know about the potential benefits of mindfulness, it makes good sense to offer everyone in the community the opportunity to begin some training. For those who find that it really clicks, we can continue to support their practice. For those who don't instantly connect, we will continue to expose them in PD and perhaps at some point in the future they might find it helpful to have learned some strategies.
If you are interested in learning more about how to incorporate mindfulness into your own life and would like more information or guidance, please feel free to contact me at JHamilton0f@nobles.edu or 781-320-7073. As always, I will be glad to talk with you.