Practicing mindfulness leads to lower stress, better health

In a fast-paced world where technology is prominent and work hours are long, people go from one thing to the next, never fully engaging in one particular thing.

“A whole spectrum of people are just moving from one thing to the next,” said Nancy West, director of the MU Honors College. “They are not really paying attention. We’re all living very busily and productively, and maybe happily to a certain extent, but we’re not thinking about our lives.”

Because of this disconnection, stress is inevitable. When too much stress is present, the side effects are detrimental.

“There are things about stress physiologically that shut down certain areas of the brain, like memory centers, articulation of thoughts and creative,” said Anna Wilson, a second year master’s student in counseling psychology and a certified yoga and meditation instructor.

All people deal with stress, but everyone deals with it differently. Some go on long runs, while others might read a book. Research is being done to find new ways to decrease stress. This research is leading more people to incorporate yoga and meditation into their everyday lives, not only for de-stressing, but also for the many other health benefits provided. Yoga incorporates breathing exercises as well as engaging many muscle groups. Meditation focuses on breathing and encouraging thoughts to pass without reaction. Both yoga and meditation teach people to slow down, be in the moment and be mindful in all aspects of life.

“Self-care is number one, always, but it is always the first thing to go when outside obligations call to us,” Wilson said. “This should be a core value to take care of yourself. It’s not something that you should compromise for others. You’re actually taking away from what you’re giving to your activities when you don’t give yourself care.”

Mindfulness should be a part of everyone’s life and encouraged by society. Many people are looking for a way to decrease stress and mindfulness is the answer. Along with decreasing stress, those who practice mindfulness have an increase of positive emotions, and it allows for thoughtful responses to situations instead of impulsive ones.

“I always call it the yoga glow,” West said. “The people who often do are often the people that have made that decision to cut down, and they just look so happy to me.”

Mindfulness is a healthy way to deal with stress because it is completely focused on stress prevention. Research is being done by Mindful Schools to see the effects of a mindful-based learning environment versus an environment without it. This research shows that mindful-based learning decreases stress associated with tests and increases empathy, self-awareness, focus and concentration. For some of Mindful School’s findings and stories, visit http://www.mindfulschools.org/about-mindfulness/stories/#anecdotal.

Despite growing support for mindfulness, it is still surrounded by a stigma. Those in the media shown practicing yoga are often portrayed as flexible and physically fit, which discourages those who may not be. The media often also portrays people who regularly meditate as being religious monks who seclude themselves on high mountaintops. Although monks often do meditate and yoga can make a person more flexible and physically fit, anyone can practice mindfulness, no matter their gender, race, age, body type or religion. These contemplative practices are about focusing on one’s self and becoming more aware of things happening in the world. Anyone can do that if they consciously decide to.

Other stigmas surrounding mindfulness are rooted deeply in the past and in cultural traditions, especially concerning men. America was founded on the drive to be independent and to handle issues without help. This can confuse men on how they are supposed to conduct themselves. Handling stress outwardly is often seen as “unmanly” and many men cringe at the thought of expressing their emotions.

“It’s a very complex issue, but when you look at masculinity, it’s what men are taught just by the dominant culture, not necessarily by their family” Wilson said. “They should handle their issues on their own. It’s a cultural norm. You handle your problems on your own, you think through them, or you get through them, or even sometimes you suppress them just to get on with life. It really causes a lot of problems.”

Despite these stigmas and cultural norms, contemplative practices are being incorporated into the lives of more and more people. As found on the Mindfulness Research Guide website, many research studies are aiding the acceptance and incorporation of yoga and meditation into the world. It is showing the power of de-stressing, the preventative measures against stress and the many other health benefits contemplative practices offer.

“The word ‘mindfulness’ is so resonant now, but we can’t have it both ways,” West said. “It’s profoundly ironic that everyone is getting yoga clothes, we’re talking about how much it helps us, etc., but then we just fly to the next thing after that.”

For the benefits of contemplative practices to work, people have to make it an integral part of their lives. It has to not only be part of their yoga classes, but it should also be prevalent in the work place, at home, and everywhere else they go.

For more information about mindfulness classes at MU, visit the Student Health Center website. In Columbia, alleyCat Yoga offers drop-in classes that cost $5 for students and Show Me Dharma offers a free open meditation sit.

Jessica Weiss

About the Author Jessica Weiss

I love photography and all the adventures that come with getting the perfect shot. I am more proud of my Irish heritage than anything else and frequently complain that I don’t have naturally red hair; after a few months of the same hair color, I dye it because I get bored … but it always stays within the red range. Traveling is my passion, and I cannot wait until I can say I have been to every continent and more than 10 countries. Recently I have developed a new love for both meditation and rock climbing. And, I say sweetie, doll, honey, darlin’ and y’all as if I’m from the south, but I grew up in Elwood, Illinois, and pronounce my –a’s harsh like a native Midwesterner.