The Science of Mindfulness
by Alicka C. Pistek
“Mindfulness can be done anywhere and at any time,” says Anusha Wijeyakumar, a wellness consultant and Director of Shanti Within Wellness. “You can begin by spending five minutes, a few times a day, being conscious of your breath and disengaging from stressful thoughts.”
Recent scientific research has shown that practicing mindfulness helps decrease the levels of stress response hormones in the body, lowers inflammation, and reduces feelings of sadness and apprehension. Up to 80% of breast cancer patients experience PTSD, an anxiety disorder that occurs in a life-threatening situation such as breast cancer or its relapse. Managing the uncertainty and worry caused by this disease through behaviors such as smoking, drinking or social withdrawal can potentially increase its risk of recurrence, in addition to resulting in a lesser quality of life during, and after, cancer treatment. Mindfulness training offers a science-based and effective coping strategy for breast cancer patients.
According to the studies, practicing mindfulness has both a psychological and biological impact on the body. It has been known to strengthen mental resilience, and practitioners have long self-reported feelings of calmness and decreased stress levels. Now, researchers have confirmed that the biochemical markers of stress and inflammation in the body are lowered. There is no evidence, however, that successful management of psychological stress improves cancer survival. Despite that, patients who take a holistic approach and incorporate mindfulness into their cancer treatment express an increase in their overall sense of wellbeing with reduced symptoms of anxiety, depression and fear, and in many cases, avoid turning to activities that could increase their risk of breast cancer recurrence, such as smoking and alcohol consumption.
Mindfulness: Helping You Check Your (Emotional) Baggage
Mindfulness is the act of focusing the mind, frequently by being conscious of your breath, on the present moment in a way that is emotionally neutral.
When you are doing something that puts you on autopilot, whether it is brushing your teeth, driving the car or standing in line to pay for groceries, it is natural for the mind to wander. You may start ruminating about the past, or you may anticipate future events whose outcome is uncertain.
The mind registers your emotional state and sends messages to your body to react accordingly. If you are anxious, for instance, you will experience a rise in stress hormones as the body goes into fight or flight mode to prepare for the perceived threat that is causing you to tense up. When you are able to engage the mind and stay in the present, the physical effects of anxiety are disrupted. One of the most straightforward paths to staying mindful is to practice what is known as conscious breath.
Takedown: Mindfulness vs. Meditation
Frequently used interchangeably, mindfulness and meditation share the same goal of calming the frenzied mind. However, mindfulness is a specific mental exercise that falls under the broad umbrella of meditation practices.
When you are mindful, you bring your full attention and awareness to a person, object or action in the present. The goal is to stop the chatter of the mind, removing overpowering emotions. The easiest way to practice mindfulness is to focus on the breath to keep the mind engaged.
Meditation is a practice where you teach yourself to acknowledge your thoughts without identifying with them to bring self-regulation to your mental processes. You bring your body and mind to a place of stillness. A variety of techniques can be used to achieve this state, including silent contemplation, muscle relaxation, conscious breath and mindfulness.
Health Hack: Use Your Breath to Reset the Body
“The breath is like a reset button for the body,” according to Wijeyakumar. “Awareness of your breath connects the mind with the physical body.”
Humans have a breathing reflex. It happens involuntarily when you are asleep or even unconscious, unlike dolphins or whales whose breath is not automatic. Yet it is also something that you can control. You can hold your breath. You can force yourself to breathe faster. And, most importantly, you can slow it down.
Deliberate and deep inhalations, followed by long and complete exhalations are a type of breathing known as conscious breath. The lungs are used to their full capacity and the amount of oxygen brought into the bloodstream is maximized.
Thoughts are pulled into the present moment as you actively work to maintain this steady, slow breath. Disengaging from unhelpful emotions in this manner has been shown to facilitate the development of positive emotional regulation. During this type of respiration, the diaphragm is fully engaged, which interrupts the body’s stress response.
Not Just in the Movies: Special Effects of Stress
A heightened sense of alertness and awareness enabled us to survive in nature for millennia. The sound of rustling in the brush could have been a bird frightened by our presence, or a lion stalking us for its next meal. When we encountered a perceived threat, our body and mind reacted by putting us into a state that would help us survive, known as the fight or flight response. It allowed us to react almost instantaneously to life-threatening situations. A cascade of chemicals, among them adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, were released in the body to elevate the heart rate, the breath rate and to provide a burst of energy. In the past, in the event of a false alarm, everyday physical activity would help release and dissipate these hormones when they were not needed.
Flash forward to the present: Our bodies still react with a stress response to modern day events such as sitting in honking traffic, opening the bills or worrying about our health. Many of us experience a constant sense of anxiety and uncertainty as we juggle complex tasks and responsibilities. Working out on a regular basis is one of the best ways to lower stress hormones, but finding the time can be a challenge, particularly if you are grappling with a breast cancer diagnosis or its recurrence, and figuring out what comes next.
Long-term stress has been associated with suppression of the immune system, inflammation, impairment of brain function, and the worsening of conditions like depression, hypertension, heart disease and some types of cancer.
It is believed that chronic stress inhibits the protective immune response in some cancer patients. When mice had human tumors implanted and were confined or isolated from other mice, conditions that increase stress, their tumors were more likely to grow and spread. Studies in mice and in human cancer cells grown in the laboratory have found that the hormone norepinephrine, part of the body’s fight or flight response system, may also promote tumor growth.
Combining mindfulness with conscious breath uses the diaphragm to stimulate the vagus nerve, and is a simple way of triggering a relaxation response in the body.
Focus Your Breath to Calm Your Inner Wanderer
Scientists have learned that the brain and internal organs are part of a bidirectional feedback loop enabled by the vagus nerve. Beginning in the brain stem, the vagus nerve wanders through the internal cavity, touching most major organs, including the heart, the lungs, and every organ in the digestive system. It conveys information up and down between the brain and your viscera.
The vagus nerve plays a key role in conscious breath due to the fact that it runs directly through the diaphragm. When you practice conscious breath, the contraction and expansion of the diaphragm stimulates the vagus nerve, causing it to send messages to the brain that you are in rest and digest mode. This activates a relaxation response in the body, soothing the nervous system. A stimulated vagus nerve has been shown to increase a sense of well-being and lower rates of depression and anxiety.
Harness the Power of the Mind to Improve Overall Wellness
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies of brains of people who meditate and practice mindfulness regularly have shown that their brain structure is different from non-practitioners: their brains have more volume.
Modern scientific techniques increasingly support anecdotal feedback about the power of the mind-body connection. Mindfulness and conscious breath provide a compelling way for breast cancer patients to enhance quality of life and manage the stress caused by the disease.
“The increased grey matter [in the MRI’s] means they have more neuroplasticity, helping them solve problems and cope with issues,” says Wijeyakumar. “Starting today, why not spend five minutes in the morning being aware of your breath and take advantage of the body-mind loop?”
More about Anusha Wijekumar
Anusha Wijekumar is an expert on the science of mindfulness and has led multiple conferences for executives at Fortune 500 companies across North America and the UK. She also serves as a wellness consultant for a leading hospital in Southern California.