Mindfulness Meditation Beats Stress… Here’s How to Do It

In All Health Watch, Cognitive Health, Featured Article

A clinical trial has proven for the first time that mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety.1

Mindfulness meditation, the practice of paying more attention to the present, has become increasing popular. Followers swear by its ability to reduce stress. But some doctors questioned its medical value. No study had ever confirmed it actually worked.2

Now, researchers at Georgetown University have proven that anxiety disorder patients experience sharply reduced stress hormone and inflammation levels using mindfulness.

Previous studies had tested mindful meditation. But none of them were designed to rule out the placebo effect. The new study was “blinded” to make sure the placebo effect did not account for the results.

Scientists gathered 89 patients with generalized anxiety disorder. This is a condition of chronic worrying. The disorder affects some 7 million Americans.3

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The patients were split into two groups. One took an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction course. The other took an eight-week stress-management course. It included general tips on nutrition, sleep, and other wellness topics. But there was no mindfulness training.

Both groups had daily classes and were treated in similar formats.

Before and after the training courses, participants underwent a standard experimental technique for inducing stress. On short notice, they were asked to give a public speech. Then their blood-based markers for stress hormones and inflammation were analyzed.

After the eight-week course, the mindfulness group showed a 15% drop in stress markers. Stress among the non-mindfulness group stayed the same.4

Dr. Elizabeth Hoge is an associate professor at Georgetown’s Department of Psychiatry. “The study adds to evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in treating anxiety,” she said.

“Mindfulness meditation training is a relatively inexpensive and low-stigma treatment approach, and these findings strengthen the case that it can improve resilience to stress.”

The study was published recently in the journal Psychiatry Research.

Mindfulness Physically Changes Your Brain

An earlier study showed that mindfulness meditation actually changes the physical structure of the brain.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston took MRI images of people before and after practicing mindfulness. They found that people who practiced mindfulness meditation for a half hour a day had increased gray matter density in the hippocampus. This is the area of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. It’s also crucial for learning and memory.

At the same time, the MRIs showed reduced gray matter density in the amygdala. This is a brain structure known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.5

Mindfulness Meditation: A Step-by-Step Guide

Mindfulness meditation is simple: You sit comfortably in any quiet place, focus on your breathing, and when your attention wanders, return.

Here’s a step-by-step guide:

Find a seat. Sit on a chair, a park bench, a carpeted floor—anywhere that is comfortable. You want a stable, solid seat…not a porch swing or rocking chair.

Position your legs. Many people like to cross their legs, but that’s not necessary. Sit so that you can relax.

Sit up. Straighten your upper body, but don’t be stiff. Your back has a natural curve. Let it be there.

Drop your hands. Let your hands rest naturally on your legs.

Look ahead. You can close your eyes or gaze forward without focusing on anything in particular.

Feel your breath. Pay attention to the physical act of breathing. Notice your chest and belly rise and fall. Mentally note breathing in and breathing out.

When your mind wanders… Don’t worry about it. That’s normal. Just go back to paying attention to your breathing.

Stop. Open your eyes if they were closed. Notice how your body feels. Pause for a moment to consider how you’d like to continue on with your day.

As little as five minutes a day is beneficial. But longer sessions—up to a half hour—or two or three sessions a day, work well for many people.

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