Stress is part of life, but since our beginnings as a species stress has changed significantly. We no longer spend our days searching for food and running from animals that are trying to eat us. When we experience stress in response to a tiger chasing us, our bodies produce hormones to improve our chance of survival. In our modern day lives we don’t have a tiger chasing us. However, we do endure an endless list of other types of stress caused by financial concerns, marital problems, our jobs, and so on, which cause us to constantly release low doses of stress hormones. Chronic low doses of stress hormones lead to poor sleep, weight gain, poor healing, increased susceptibility to viruses, heart disease and a whole host of other problems that most of us would like to avoid. In short, the same hormones in quick bursts that helped keep us alive by avoiding being eaten by a tiger, in chronic doses may lead to earlier death and certainly don’t make us feel well.
Mindfulness meditation is a simple exercise that can reduce not only stress and pain, but also the negative effects of stress and pain. A Harvard study done in 2011 demonstrated that people who underwent an 8-week meditation course with daily meditation practice didn’t just feel better because they were spending time relaxing, they actually changed the structure of their brain! They increased the grey matter in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for learning, memory, self-awareness and introspection. Even more exciting, they DECREASED the grey matter in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain associated with stress and anxiety. They literally had less of their brain reacting in a negative way to stress.
And you don’t have to be a Zen master sitting on a high mountain meditating all day to benefit from the positive effects of meditation on things like pain. A study out of Wake Forest University took people who had never meditated before and taught them mindfulness meditation over a 4-day period. On the fifth day they found a 40% decrease in response to pain during meditation. This is just one of the many studies showing the positive impact of mindfulness meditation on managing pain.
To practice mindfulness meditation, sit in a comfortable chair or on a meditation cushion with your spine tall and your neck in a neutral position. Your hands can be resting on your knees. Close your eyes. A beginning practice starts with just feeling your breath pass in and out of your nose. Some find it helpful to think, “breathing in, breathing out.” You don’t need to control your breath, but if you want to take deeper breaths that is ok too. Regardless, just focus on your breath. As you are focusing on your breath, notice any tension you are holding in your body. Are you tense in your jaw, the back of your neck, your shoulders, your thighs or your low back? Focus on relaxing those areas. Sometimes it helps to “feel” the breath enter those tight areas and feel it releasing them. Then just come back to your breath. Breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out.
Everyone’s mind will wander. That is part of being human. There is nothing wrong with your mind wandering. Simply notice that it did and come back to focusing on the breath. It can be tempting in those moments where you have drifted off into planning your day, or rehashing a scene that played out in your life already, to explore them further, but that is for another time. While you are practicing mindfulness meditation, simply notice that you drifted off and come back to your breath. Breathing in, breathing out. Feeling the air pass through your nose and feeling your belly and ribcage expand and collapse. It isn’t about forcing your mind not to wander off. It is about gently realizing it did and coming back to the present moment. To put it another way, the goal is not to clear the mind. The goal is literally to “fail” and start again.
Repeatedly practicing mindfulness meditation literally changes brain structure, much the same way lifting weights can increase the size of your muscles and make you stronger and less likely to get injured. Mindfulness meditation can also benefit you if you are having surgery. Studies have shown that patients undergoing surgery who practice mindfulness meditation recover more quickly, have better outcomes and less post-operative pain.
Try the practices described above. Mindfulness meditation is safe, it is free, and its benefits are well studied and well recognized.
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