We are officially on the Christmas December countdown clock and you know what that means. Twelve children screaming, eight in-laws staying over, five hours of sleep, two last minute gifts and a daily stress-induced headache. The holidays do invoke all those warm fuzzy feelings: good will towards men, mirth and merriment, and fond family bonding. But it’s hard to ignore all the negative feelings associated with this time of year as well. Sometimes it’s easy to trade that cup of hot cocoa for a giant glass of stress. While I may not have any helpful hints on how to deal with holiday traffic or less than desirable relatives overstaying their welcome, there is an easy trick that will only take five minutes each morning that will calm your worries and ease your troubled mind.
It’s called mindfulness meditation. Don’t let the word meditation scare you off. I’d wager that every person has meditated at some point in their life, even if they weren’t aware that’s what they were doing. If you’ve ever reflected on your day, if you’ve ever listened to music with your eyes closed, if you’ve ever zoned out on a spot in the room, or prayed to a higher power, these are all forms of meditation. The dictionary defines meditating: “to engage in contemplation or reflection”, “to plan or project in the mind”, and “to focus one’s thoughts”.
So, what does it mean to mindfully meditate? The difference lies in intention. It’s a cerebral exercise in which one focuses the mind in the present moment. It’s noticing what you are thinking, feeling, sensing, in those moments and paying attention to it. This can involve pranayama, or breathing exercises, mental imagery, body relaxation, and sensory focus or even sensory deprivation. But we will save the how-to for blog #2; for now, let’s focus on the why.
Study after study has demonstrated the health benefits of meditation. These range from physical, to emotional, to mental, with stress reduction being the biggest. “In 2010, Hoffman et al. conducted a meta-analysis of 39 studies that explored the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The researchers concluded that mindfulness-based therapy may be useful in altering affective and cognitive processes that underlie multiple clinical issues.” Daphne M. Davis, PhD, and Jeffrey A. Hayes, PhD of the American Psychological Association writes. “Those findings are consistent with evidence that mindfulness meditation increases positive affect and decreases anxiety and negative affect. In one study, participants randomly assigned to an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction group were compared with controls on self-reported measures of depression, anxiety and psychopathology, and on neural reactivity as measured by fMRI after watching sad films. The researchers found that the participants who experienced mindfulness-based stress reduction had significantly less anxiety, depression and somatic distress compared with the control group. (Farb et al., 2010; Williams, 2010).” (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx)
Going hand in hand with stress is focus. Researchers have also discovered that self-reported mindfulness practitioners tested higher in cognitive flexibility and attention span than those who did not (Moore and Malinowski, 2009). With less negativity clogging our cranial pathways, this frees up our brainpower to be attentive and concentrate more clearly.
Davis and Hayes also state that “mindfulness has been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation, all functions associated with the brain's middle prefrontal lobe area. Evidence also suggests that mindfulness meditation has numerous health benefits, including increased immune functioning (Davidson et al., 2003; see Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004 for a review of physical health benefits), improvement to well-being (Carmody & Baer, 2008) and reduction in psychological distress (Coffey & Hartman, 2008; Ostafin et al., 2006). In addition, mindfulness meditation practice appears to increase information processing speed (Moore & Malinowski, 2009), as well as decrease task effort and having thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand (Lutz et al., 2009).” This means that taking time to daily meditate may have benefits ranging from intellect, to controlling our emotions, to improving our general well-being. (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx)
With December well on its way, don’t let your Christmas be blue. That stress slope can be a slippery one; this year try giving your brain the gift of mindful meditation. Dealing with the Christmas crazies doesn’t have to be a tradition. Instead, by mindfully meditating each day, preferably in the morning, the holidays can be merry and bright once more.
In Part Two of this blog series, I will go over some of the actual techniques for mindful meditation. Be on the lookout for that December 18th!
By Libby Young