Mindfulness & Brain Health
Being in tune with your body and mind can have ample health benefits
Mindfulness may be having a moment in popular Western culture today, but people have been utilizing this ancient practice and experiencing its various benefits for centuries. Many of the methods practiced in the West originated in Asia and may bring to mind visions of a Tibetan monk in seated meditation or someone performing the techniques of yoga or Aikido.
A growing body of research suggests that practicing mindfulness can have a positive effect on anxiety, depression, the immune system and more.
What is Mindfulness?
In Western cultures, mindfulness is often a catch-all phrase that includes the idea of using mental techniques to increase awareness in the present moment. The practice involves focusing on your environment, bodily sensations and thoughts and feelings without placing judgement or expectations on them. Often the energy is on the breath. It is both a meditation exercise and a way of being that people can adopt into their lives. Being mindful can look like following a 10-minute guided meditation app, taking a yoga class, or simply being in nature with the intent to observe and clear the mind.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Dr. Mabel Hsin is a medical doctor who began focusing on wellness care and mindfulness teaching full-time after seeing its powerful effects in one of her young patients. The patient, who was in his late twenties, was under pressure in his job and, as a result, battled with severe anxiety and gastritis. Hehad tried therapy, counselling and multiple medications with little effect and could barely get out of bed. As a last resort, he took part in an eight-week-long Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. The effects were significant. Through the program, the patient began experiencing less pain and didn’t need as much medication. He was also able to go outside again and developed the courage to leave his job and apply elsewhere. “It was just tremendous improvement,” Hsin says.
Inspired, Hsin, who regularly practices Aikido, a form of martial arts in which she holds a black belt, began training to teach MBSR in 2017. After becoming a qualified MBSR teacher in 2019, she made the decision to leave her clinical practice behind
The MBSR program was developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusets Medical School in the U.S. Now taught across North America, the program is broken into weekly in-class two-and-a-half-hour sessions. Outside of class, participants also study the history of mindfulness, its health benefits
and different types of meditation. The program’s goal is to teach students how to handle stress by integrating mindfulness skills into their day-to-day lives.
Today, Hsin teaches MBSR to cardiac patients at the Southlake Regional Health Centre in Ontario, as there is a strong link between anxiety and an increased risk of heart attacks. She also works with Altitude HCM, which helps companies build healthy workplaces through assessing and developing emotional intelligence in their employees.
Mindfulness and Dementia
As mindfulness is linked to being good for your brain and body, there is some discussion about whether it could help delay, or prevent, the onset of dementia. Hsin believes that practicing mindfulness can alter a person’s physiology for the better and says science backs up its benefits. “Not only am I seeing it first-hand, I’m also seeing thescientific data,” she says.
For caregivers, who are under a lot of pressure and stress, a mindfulness practice can help them avoid burnout. It also teaches strategies for responding, rather than reacting, to challenges.
For people who are living with early-stage dementia and mild cognitive impairment, the practice may be useful for acknowledging complex emotional patterns they may be feeling and uncovering anxiety triggers in order to reduce stress.
When it comes to dementia prevention, Hsin says the study of mindfulness is fairly new, but there are known benefits that could improve overall brain health. Besides increasing general happiness, it is known to reduce anxiety, which is important as stress and anxiety are risk factors that may lead to a dementia diagnosis later in life. There is also preliminary research in the field of epigenetics, the study of gene behaviour, on stress reduction and how it affects gene expression in humans. While still relatively new, this research could potentially prove that taking measures to reduce stress and modifying other lifestyle factors, like diet and exercise, could determine whether or not dementia presents itself as people age. Lastly, mindfulness has been shown to slow aging in the brain, which means practitioners could potentially stay healthier longer. [ ]
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