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Cleveland Clinic Wellness

The Science of Mindfulness

“Chronic and unmanaged psychological stress is one of the root causes of the current epidemic of chronic diseases. Cutting-edge scientific investigations clearly demonstrate that the practice of mindfulness is probably the best approach to heal and protect against our modern stress-provoking lifestyles. Better mood, lower blood sugar, smaller waist, less pain, improved decision making and creativity, increased threshold for stress and quicker recovery from negative emotions are well-documented benefits of daily formal practice of simply paying attention to the present moment. This is true not only for those who suffer from chronic diseases, but for all of us.”
—Mladen Golubić, MD, PhD, Medical Director of the Center for Lifestyle Medicine, Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic

There’s good reason why Time magazine did a big a story on Jon Kabat-Zinn in its “Healthland” section. The founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, Kabat-Zinn is recognized as the primary reason that mindfulness meditation (what he calls Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR) has become a part of mainstream medicine. In fact, it is now used in more than 200 hospitals and is the focus of many research studies.

But mindfulness-based programs aren’t found only in hospitals. Mindfulness is being used to train leaders of large corporations to be “mindful leaders” and law enforcement officers to be effective negotiators. It’s also used with children in schools to help them improve their focus and enjoy life more. The U.S. government has also gotten on board, teaching our armed forces to use mindfulness tools to mitigate stress in the field and upon returning home.

As you learned before in the topic Your Brain on Meditation, mindfulness meditation plays a positive role in emotional regulation, slows the effects of aging, improves the functioning of the immune system and improves concentration and memory. Other benefits include better outcomes for people being treated for cardiovascular disease, depression, addictions, chronic pain and many other conditions. And a recent study showed that mindfulness meditation can work just as well as antidepressants in reducing relapse in patients who have recovered from depression. That’s big news!

Perhaps the most amazing part of all this research is that it so clearly points to mindfulness meditation as being crucial when you’re under stress or experiencing pain. Studies from Massachusetts General Hospital have shown that eight weeks of MBSR can affect the brain in such a way (thickening some areas and thinning others) that during a stressful time, you’re better able to see things clearly, remember and make decisions, and your reaction to fear and threats is diminished.

On a more everyday level, mindfulness meditation helps you be present. Which means that when you find yourself sitting on a park bench on a beautiful day, you’re able to enjoy the feeling of the sun on your face and appreciate the sound of the wind rustling the leaves, rather than spend those moments worrying about being late or thinking through tomorrow’s schedule. In fact, as you become more mindful, you become more aware of when you are lost in thought, so that when you’re sitting on that park bench, you’re able to observe that you are missing a beautiful day by worrying about the time or the next day’s schedule—and you can bring yourself back to being fully present in the moment. When you make this change in your attention, you change the functioning of your brain, which can have a long-term impact on how your brain actually works.

In addition to all of these benefits, researchers have discovered that mindfulness meditation promotes brain activity in areas associated with positive emotions, meaning that it helps to make our experiences deep and meaningful, and it helps us enjoy life, have more fun, connect with other people and develop a more loving relationship with ourselves. As all of this is happening, regularly practicing formal relaxation also has stress-reduction benefits that change the way our bodies work, resulting in better health. Not bad for spending a few minutes each day breathing with awareness, right?