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Reducing Stress and Improving Health

February 06, 2017

For many of us, stress is an everyday part of our lives. While some stress can be motivating, chronic stress can have very real effects on our health. Inflammation, depression, heart disease and a weakened immune system have all been associated with long-term stress.

Fortunately, there are ways to control stress. One of those is mindfulness meditation, which studies have shown to be effective in reducing stress.

Mindfulness meditation helps you calm your mind as you focus on breathing and paying attention to what’s going on inside of you at a given moment. It’s basically a way to learn how to be more present in our lives and to broaden our perspective on things. There is also mounting evidence that mindfulness meditation can help individuals deal with more serious mental health issues and even help us age better.

A Boston University review of 39 studies involving 1,140 participants found that mindfulness is effective in relieving anxiety and improving mood. Another study involving the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Australia’s Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing revealed that the brains of long-term mindfulness practitioners appear more youthful and have less gray matter atrophy than non-practitioners.

So the question is, how do you get started? Mindfulness is simply focusing on what is in front of you and letting all other tasks fall away. It means paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment. Right and wrong are set aside and you simply evaluate what “is.” This awareness can be applied to your breathing, eating or even making a cup of tea, although the more classic approach is to sit quietly and really notice what is going on within you.

Practicing mindfulness meditation takes just 10–20 minutes of focus to quiet your mind. Start small, with a few minutes, and gradually increase the time as you adjust to this new practice. Focus on your breathing, close your eyes and relax your muscles. You also can say a positive word, or if you feel your mind wandering, bring it back gently to the present moment without judging yourself.

If you find it difficult to do this on your own, a smartphone application can guide you through the process. One of the most popular apps, Headspace, helps meditation newcomers get accustomed to the process with guided, timed sessions and supportive messaging.

Consistent use of mindfulness practices will change the way your brain responds to stress. It will give you more energy and help you relax. By learning how to control your mind, you reduce the reactiveness of your stress response. This lowers the levels of stress hormones in your system, and that in turn has been shown to improve immune function, reduce blood pressure and improve heart rate. Mindfulness is one of the simplest stress-reducing techniques there is, and well worth the investment of your time and effort.

For more coping tips from Diane Robinson, PhD, go to OrlandoHealthBlog.com.

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