Discover the mindfulness movement to stress less, be happier and healthier

Did you know practising mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety, increase your brainpower and positively transform the way you interact with others? Find out how you can incorporate ‘mindfulness’ into your life today.

What exactly is mindfulness?
In basic terms, mindfulness is a practice that brings focus and attention to your body and surroundings. While the concept has been around for a long time—originally dating back to Buddhist culture 2000 years ago—the mindfulness movement has really taken off in a non-religious context over the last decade.

Athletes are using mindfulness to focus their minds and train their bodies, senior executives are using it to de-stress and balance corporate life, and psychologists and doctors are trialling it as a mental health tool.

Dr Craig Hassed, a senior lecturer at Monash University, who started teaching mindfulness to medical students in 1989, attributes this spike in popularity to increasing strong evidence and research that practicing mindfulness can actually change the brain.

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The practice speaks to struggles that you have experienced and takes steps to respond to your own emotional and other mental and brain processes

“We’re revolutionising our understanding of the brain these days. We have the capacity to make new brain cells, and mindfulness can help do that,” he said.

Increase your brain power
Harvard researchers found during a 2011 study that regular mindfulness meditation for as little as 15 minutes a day leads to growth in brain areas associated with learning and memory. People who kept it up for six weeks also saw benefits in emotional regulation, self-awareness and perspective-taking.

So, why would something so simple have such a dramatic impact? When we learn something new, or pay attention to the task at hand, new connections in the brain are formed. The brain starts growing new neurons to accommodate this new information, as part of a process called neuroplasticity. As we continue learning or practising mindfulness, our brain literally starts to grow as the neurons start moving farther part from each other to accommodate all the new connections.

Eventually, these people who practise regularly start bringing mindfulness into everything they do and pretty soon their brain is always activated, always growing and learning. Whereas once they would have switched into auto-pilot, their brain starts catching them when they start to wander off and re-activates spontaneously.

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Mindfulness is a form of self-awareness training adapted from Buddhist mindfulness meditation

Improve your mental health
Psychologist Dr Tania Perich from the Black Dog Institute says her research is showing that mindfulness is an effective method of cognitive therapy. She is among a growing band of psychologists who are using mindfulness as a tool to help people experiencing stress, anxiety and depression.

“Mindfulness based programs have been found to reduce relapse to depression and can be as effective as anti-depressant medication in preventing relapse,” Dr Perich says.

“In our research we found that it can reduce anxiety for people with bipolar disorder." Studies suggest that mindfulness has a positive impact on cortisol, which is responsible for our stress levels.

For example a 2013 study from the journal Health Psychology followed 57 people participants who spent three months at a meditation retreat, where they practised mindful breathing and learned self-awareness and observation skills. The researchers took saliva samples before and after the retreat, and found decreases in cortisol levels, therefore stress levels, following the program.

While additional studies are emerging drawing a link between mindfulness meditation and lowered stress, the research isn’t yet considered conclusive. But if it works for you then try it and stick with it!

See if it works for you
“Although deceptively 'easy', mindfulness can be hard to learn,” said Dr Perich. “The best way to learn mindfulness is to enrol in a mindfulness program with a reputable organisation or teacher. Experienced teachers are the best as they are able to guide people through the tough bits.”

The good news is that our brain never loses the capacity to make new brain cells, according to Dr Hassed. “People can learn to rewire their brain later in life,” he says.

Dr Perich agrees. She runs a mindfulness-based cognitive therapy program for people with a history of recurrent depression, and says it’s never too late to start. “I have had participants in their 70’s in my programs,” she adds.

 
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How to get started
Mindfulness meditation is the most effective tool in practising being ‘in the moment’.

“It’s about bringing attention and awareness to our day to day life,” Dr Hassed says. “Mostly people are living their lives on autopilot, there’s all the multi tasking and people are disconnecting from each other.”

He recommends learning the basics with the Smiling Mind app, a science-based meditation tool that he helped develop. The app suggests different ways and styles of meditating, and recommends practising between 3 to 5 times per week to reap benefits.

Most meditations last between 5 to 15 minutes, but Dr Hassed says it’s important to continue being present for the rest of the day to avoid switching off.

Looking for a more in-depth program?
Dr Hassed has co-developed a free six week online mindfulness course, which is available through Monash University and Future Learn.

Join the mindfulness revolution!
Want to learn more about mindfulness and how to integrate it into your life? The Mindfulness Summit is a free online event and not-for-profit project running from 1st to 31st October 2015 with 30 of the world’s leading experts on meditation and mindfulness sharing their knowledge with a series of online interviews, practice sessions and presentations. Discover helpful coping strategies for stress and anxiety, hear about clinically proven benefits from neuroscience and new research, try out new mindfulness practices and enjoy learning about something new. 

Have you ever tried integrating mindfulness into your life? What was your experience like? Join the conversation below.