The director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine shares ways to use mindfulness to help manage today’s stressful world.

Mindfulness is trending right now. But what exactly is mindfulness? And how can it improve your health?

Mindfulness can mean different things to different experts but, at its core, it is a way to press the pause button during a busy day or stressful situation. It can help clear your mind of worry and clutter. And it can teach you how to live in the present moment. The calm and peace you achieve through the practice can then flow into your daily life.

Quick Mindfulness Exercises:

  • The next time you are enjoying a meal, pick one item on your plate. Take a tiny bite. Consider the texture. Is it crunchy? Smooth? Take another bite. Consider the taste? Is it sweet? Sour?
  • Try a repetitive activity like running, washing dishes or knitting. Focus on the movement. Let your thoughts come and go.
  • Create a mantra for yourself. Or memorize a short inspirational phrase or prayer. Say it every day and during stressful times.

By taking note of something simple, like your breathing, a personal mantra or even a beautiful scene in nature, you can refocus your brain to better handle stress. This focused awareness technique can then be expanded to an open awareness approach. This allows us to focus on thoughts and sensations in a nonjudgmental way.

As director of the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, I often educate medical professionals and the community about mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness really works and there is research to support it.

The Relaxation Response

One of the most effective techniques to achieve mindfulness is through meditation. Herbert Benson, MD, director emeritus, studied various forms of meditation and came to understand that they all elicited in practitioners a physiological state he named the “relaxation response.” He found that people who meditated regularly had lower stress levels and an increased sense of wellbeing. They were sometimes also able to reduce their blood pressure.

At BHI, we teach patients ways to counteract stress and build resilience by eliciting the relaxation response and by learning cognitive skills and optimism, cultivating social supports and maintaining a healthy lifestyle of exercise, nutrition and sleep hygiene.

The basic steps to achieving the relaxation response are: repeat a sound, word, phrase, prayer or movement and set aside intruding thoughts, continuing to return to the repetition exercise.

Breathing Exercise, a Meditative Approach:

  • Find a comfortable space and close your eyes.
  • Take a deep cleansing breath and expand your diaphragm if you can, the main muscle that sits below your lungs and assists with breathing. With practice you should be able to feel your chest rise as your lungs fill with air.
  • Focus on the word “peace” as you inhale. You can choose whatever words you like, or none at all.
  • Hold your breath for a count of 2.
  • Exhale, collapsing your diaphragm. You should feel your chest drop.
  • Focus on the word “calm” as you exhale to a count of 6.
  • Make your exhalation longer than your inhalation.

In addition to meditation, mindfulness can be achieved in other ways—raking the leaves or preparing a meal can be done in a mindful way for example. A good mindfulness practice will help you live in the moment and let go of thoughts of past mistakes or future chores and challenges. Mindfulness is focusing your awareness on your present thoughts and feelings without judging them to be good or bad.

Health Benefits of Mindfulness

Taking time out for mindfulness meditation can decrease your breathing rate, which relaxes you and calms the nervous system. The effect can be quick.

The health benefits might even be long-term.

Research shows that people who have a genetic predisposition to a certain condition, like anxiety, depression, heart disease or diabetes, among many others, may become more vulnerable to develop episodes of the disease if they chronically experience conditions of high stress.

Studies have shown that those who attend programs like our SMART program, which are designed to reduce stress and enhance resilience, can see their perceived stress, depressive symptoms, spiritual connectedness and overall health-related quality of life improve. We have also shown that integrating mind body approaches that promote the relaxation response and mindfulness into one’s life can actually change the activity level of certain genes promoting a healthier cellular environment that promotes health. Perhaps, this is why a recent preliminary study found that participants in BHI programs reduced medical visits, on average, by 43 percent in the year after they completed our programs.

You Can Support Mindfulness

BHI uses philanthropic dollars to provide programs and conduct research. More funding could support research on stress and cancer, expand programs to help children develop resilience and establish fellowships to train physicians in mind body medicine.

To make a donation to support the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine, please contact us.

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Gregory L. Fricchione, MD, is director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. He also serves as associate chief of Psychiatry and director of the Division of Psychiatry and Medicine at MGH and is a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.