Mindful awareness practices for stress reduction

More than 30 years ago, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist from MIT, introduced mindfulness practices to Western medicine in a program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Today, mindfulness practices are taught in many programs, including UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Practices classes (MAPs).

“The applicability of mindfulness-based practices are wide,” says Justin Laube, MD, an internal medicine provider at the UCLA Center for EastWest Medicine. “It’s helpful for psychological traumas as well as various medical conditions.”

Skeptical war vets experience the benefits

Left untreated, trauma can be a lifelong heavy burden leading to depression, violence, substance abuse and suicide. It has been 40 years since the Vietnam War ended, but it’s estimated that about 271,000 veterans who served in a war zone have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) according to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry.

A recent study by researchers at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System randomly assigned 116 veterans with PTSD to receive nine sessions of MBSR, which teaches participants to be present in the moment in a nonjudgmental, accepting manner. The others attended group therapy, primarily focusing on current life problems. The veterans were monitored before, during and after treatment. Results found that among veterans with PTSD, mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy, compared to group therapy, resulted in a greater decrease in PTSD symptom severity.

A healthy way to ease disease symptoms

A wide variety of studies have shown that mindfulness practices can be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, chronic pain, inflammatory bowel disease and stress-related skin conditions such as psoriasis. It does so because it is effective at reducing stress, which can wreak havoc in the body.

Mindfulness helps you become more aware of how stress feels. It could be a tense jaw, shallow breathing or repetitive negative thoughts. With practice and expert guidance, mindfulness allows you to break down problematic experiences into smaller, more manageable parts, according to Natalie Bell, a certified mindfulness instructor for the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).

“When you are mindful you are seeing, listening and feeling with the purposeful intention to notice yourself and your surroundings with a quality of curiosity and openness,” says Bell. “You are developing a compassionate awareness that can be with you no matter what is happening.”

The practice simply uses the breath as a focal point. Consciously breathing in and out helps you stay present and aware of thoughts and feelings. Knowing that thoughts and emotions constantly shift and change can help you be less judgmental and more accepting of yourself and others.

Learning online and in groups

While there are online resources, it is helpful to attend a live instructor-led mindfulness course. The instructor can help you get started, and committing to a weekly group class can help you stick with the practice. In groups, you also learn that there are others who may be dealing with similar challenges. “Realizing that others are also suffering can be therapeutic,” says Dr. Laube.

Each time you meditate, it’s like putting a deposit in your mindful awareness bank account. Through time you’ll find yourself becoming more patient and less reactive to life’s inevitable stresses. And when you do find yourself overwhelmed, you’ll have a reserve of resources to help calm and support yourself.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

This short meditation can help you feel calmer in just a few minutes:

  1. Set a timer for three minutes.
  2. Sit upright and relaxed.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Focus on your inhale and exhale.
  5. When your mind wanders, notice and refocus on your breath.

For free guided meditations and more about the benefits of mindfulness, go to marc.ucla.edu.

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