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Health Wise with Crystal Han The Power of Mindfulness S top and think for a minute. When’s the last time you lived fully in the present moment? If you’re like most of us, chances are you spend much of your day drifting between thinking of all the things you need to do or mulling over the things that are already done. While thinking of the past and future has its benefits, practicing mindfulness does a great deal more for your mental and physical health. Mindfulness is avoiding unconscious or mechanical activity by purposely focusing your attention on the present moment. It is where you tune into your inner thoughts and the world around you, accepting all of it without judg- ment. So often, when we are overcome with emotion, we react to it without thought, doing and saying things that we don’t necessarily mean and creating more trouble for ourselves in the process. Practicing mindfulness helps us alter these knee-jerk reactions by allowing us to slow down and get to know ourselves. The more we learn about how we think and act in various situations, the better we get at labeling our thoughts and feelings and letting them go, rather than letting them dictate our behavior. Naturally, when we are less reactive to everything in our lives, we are less susceptible to the effects of stress, and there is plenty of research to prove it. Studies have shown that mindfulness, especially mindfulness meditation, increases activity in the region of the brain associated with greater resilience to negative or stressful events. It also has been shown to increase thickness in the parts of the brain responsible for visual and auditory information, as well as present moment awareness and regulating emotions, meaning it enhances our attention and self-control. This, in turn, helps to reduce the cell dam- age incurred by stress and bolsters our immune systems so that we are better able to fight off diseases. Scientists have found that practicing mindfulness can even help lower high blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, and improve sleep. Practicing mindfulness has also been shown to help with depression and anxiety by decreasing ruminative thoughts on one’s assumed faults or shortcomings, as well as painful past events. Those who suffer from depres- sion or anxiety are better able to realize when they are caught in a negative thought spiral. When they do, they can acknowledge that yes, this is a thought they are having, but it doesn’t mean that perceived idea of themselves is reality. They are better equipped to look beyond their own thoughts and see that other people don’t view them as harshly as they view themselves. Now that you know some of the benefits of mindfulness, you might be wondering how to practice it. The great thing about being mindful is that it can be practiced in many forms. There are therapeutic mindfulness programs, as well as a plethora of apps and podcasts. Yoga and Tai-Chi are often good starting points because they focus on concen- tration, such as repeating a phrase or focusing on breathing. Mindfulness builds off of this focus and once you have established concentration you can observe the flow of inner thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, as well as sights, sounds, and touch. Pay attention to what comes and goes through your mind and what mental habits produce GILROY • MORGAN HILL • SAN MARTIN JUNE/JULY 2018 feelings of well-being or suffering. Of course, you don’t have to enter into a meditative state to practice mind- fulness. It can be cultivated anywhere, at any time, by “single-tasking.” This is where you do one thing at a time and give that thing your full attention. Whether it’s walking your dog, playing with your kids, or even brushing your teeth, try to stay fully in the present as it unfolds and pay attention to your moment-to-moment sensations and thoughts. No matter how you practice mind- fulness, it’s important to remember that the goal is not to quiet your mind or to achieve a state of otherworldly euphoria. The goal is to pay attention to the present moment. You might find that trying to do this is hard, and that’s completely normal. Your mind will try to be anywhere other than where you are: your to-do list, what happened yester- day, what’s for dinner. When you notice it wandering, congratulate yourself— researchers believe that it’s this act of recognition that leads to healthier, more agile brains—and then bring it back to the task at hand. Your brain might also try to judge every second, making you feel guilty about the thoughts and feelings you’re having. Make note of these judgments, and then let them pass. The same goes for any negative physical sensations. Like anything else in life, practicing mindfulness takes time and work. But the more you do it, the more you’ll find that it’s worth it! Sources: Firestone, Lisa, Ph.D, Benefits, Psychology Today The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation, ExploreIM How to Practice Mindfulness, mindful.org. gmhtoday.com 63