Wellness Wednesday: What Daily Mindfulness Can Do For Your Brain

We all know mindfulness is helpful for destressing, but did you know it can change your brain? Learn what daily mindfulness can do for your brain in today's Wellness Wednesday post. 

What Daily Mindfulness Can Do For Your Brain

Hi all! Last week for Wellness Wednesday, I did a guest post over on my pal Emily's blog, Zen & Spice. This week, she's dropping by my little spot on the web to talk mindfulness. Let's take it over to her! 

Hi everyone! I’m Emily Hein, a private practice dietitian and food/wellness blogger based out of Dallas, Texas.

On my blog, Zen & Spice, you’ll find easy recipes using natural ingredients, a glimpse into my lifestyle, and meditation & mindfulness tips. I aim to inspire my clients and readers to fuel their body with real, unprocessed food and live for mindfully and in the present moment. I truly don’t remember a time when I wasn’t finding joy in health, nutrition and food!

Today I am so excited to be sharing a post on Avocado a Day Nutrition! I admire Rachael’s blog and especially her intuitive eating articles. As a fellow dietitian, I have gained great insight from reading her posts! The community of dietitian bloggers is amazing. Everyone is so helpful and supportive of one another.

Rachael wrote a fantastic guest post for my blog last week: 3 Ways You Can Start Intuitively Eating Today. As you readers probably know, Rachael blogs often about Intuitive Eating—the principle that becoming attuned to your body’s needs is the best way to achieve and sustain a happy, healthy weight that’s right for you. Another way to achieve and sustain a happy, healthy body (and mind) is to practice daily mindfulness and meditation.

I recently read an article in the Washington Post about meditation’s effect on the brain. A Harvard neuroscientist was one of the first to study the claimed benefits of mediation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans.

And guess what? Meditation actually changes your brain. The study showed that regular meditation is associated with decreased stress, depression, anxiety, pain, and insomnia. In long term meditators, the study showed an increased gray matter in the several areas of the brain associated with working memory and executive decision making. A 50-year old meditator had the same amount of gray matter as a 25 year old.

Another study showed that in people who have never meditated before, that in just 8 weeks of regular meditation, for about half an hour per day, their gray matter thickened in four regions that are associated with mind wandering, self-relevance, learning, cognition, memory, emotional regulation, perspective taking, empathy and compassion. The grey matter in the amygdala, associated with anxiety, fear and stress, got smaller.

Meditation teachers say even just ten minutes per day could have huge benefits. Mindfulness is a form of exercise for the brain. Just as exercise is good for physical health, meditation can do the same for mental health. Mental health is just as important, if not more so, than physical health.

What some people may not know about me is that I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life. I have always been an anxious person, and it runs in my family. My biggest struggle was medical anxiety—fear of getting sick or something being wrong with me. It was at its worst during college and my dietetic internship—working in a hospital every day with extremely sick patients didn’t help. I knew I needed to change something, so I started reading about meditation and mindfulness and working them into my daily life.

Over time I have noticed the default reactions of my mind changing. Instead of defaulting to anxiety, fear or anger, I default to peace and understanding. Practicing reacting peacefully over time overwrites the default anger reaction.

So you want to get started with meditation and mindfulness—how long should you do it? The study I mentioned above says thirty minutes reaps the most benefits—but I think ten minutes is good for starters. Find a quiet, clean space in your home where you can sit comfortably (but not so comfortable that you fall asleep). A sturdy chair or a small cushion on the floor will work. Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes lightly. Inhale deeply and exhale. There are several types of sitting meditations you can do: sensory awareness (What do you hear? Feel? Smell? Focus on these things.), breath awareness (if you feel sleepy, focus on breaths through your nostril. If you feel distracted, focus on your abdomen), breath counting (count from 1-10, keeping your mind clear), or breathing with a mantra (“I am home”, or “Here, now”).

As good as I think a ten or twenty minute meditation is, it’s also helpful to try being mindful moment to moment throughout the whole day. That’s where the challenge is anyway—trying to be mindful during those stressful daily moments.

Here are a few simple mindfulness concepts you can incorporate into your day that won’t take too much time at all.

  • Ground yourself. Stay at full attention in the present moment. Whatever you’re doing, give it your full attention.
  • Listen intently to who you’re talking to. Give them your full attention. No phones, laptops, TVs, no distractions.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings—whether you’re inside out outside! Notice the trees, grass, the wind, details on buildings. You may see things you haven’t before, because you’ve been so distracted.
  • React with peace. Anger, sadness and anxiety are all natural human emotions—what matters is how we choose to react to these emotions. React with peace and know that these feelings will pass on their own time.

Practicing meditation and mindfulness for mental health is just as important as maintaining your physical health. When your mood and spirit are in the dumps, it’s very difficult to eat right and stay active. Consider incorporating a few daily mindfulness concepts to help relieve stress and help you achieve your health and wellness goals!

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Do you meditate? What mindfulness practices have you incorporated into your day?