Why is mindfulness effective in improving well being? Research indicates (at least) two processes at work–physical and mental. Today, we’ll focus on the physical underpinnings:
Physical benefits of mindfulness include lowered blood pressure, improved immune system functioning, and better sleep. These benefits are related to the physically calming effects of mindfulness.
A little about the body’s nervous system and how we respond to stress:
The autonomic nervous system is made up of two complementary systems–the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system.
When we are not in imminent danger, our bodies are intended to default to a restorative phase in which our parasympathetic nervous system is in control.
The parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for “rest & digest,” directs our bodies to digest food and devote energy to healing, growth, and boosting our immune system.
When we sense danger, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in. The sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the “fight or flight” response, diverts blood flow and energy to the large muscles in our bodies that allow us to fight off or run from impending danger.
When we sense danger, our blood pressure shoots up, adrenalin and other stress hormones rush into our system, and we’re prepared for battle. Unfortunately, most of us have an overreactive sympathetic nervous system–we experience the “fight or flight” response when we’re faced with normal daily stressors and irritations. For example, say you get cut off in traffic–this is annoying, but there’s no imminent danger and there’s certainly no rationale for a fight! An overreactive sympathetic nervous system contributes to problems controlling anger, anxiety, and/or physiological stress ailments such as digestive issues, headaches, and so forth.
All of us face daily stressors and if your sympathetic nervous system is constantly kicking into high gear, you begin to experience the “kindling effect.”
To understand the kindling effect, think about starting a fire–if you’re starting a fire from scratch with a bunch of hard wood, it takes some time and prodding for the fire to catch and sustain. However, if you have embers left over from last night’s fire, and you add some kindling (small sticks & twigs), it doesn’t take long at all–and usually there’s a small combustion when the kindling catches fire.
The same kindling effect happens when your sympathetic nervous system is never fully calmed down.
Whether your typical stress response is anger, anxiety, or a physiological reaction such as headache or stomachache, you’re more likely to have a full blown stress response to a minor stressor if you’re not taking time each day (even better, several times a day!) to relax and reset. As a result, today’s response to stress is amped up by all the stressors from the past week or month–not a healthy way to respond!
Mindfulness calms the sympathetic nervous system, which recalibrates your body’s reaction to stress and the production of stress hormones.
Having a finely tuned (as opposed to overreactive) sympathetic nervous system contributes to coping more effectively with day-to-day stressors without the disruption of an “adrenalin rush.” When you’re not experiencing a rush of adrenalin, cortisol, etc., every time you face a daily stressor, your body is better able to regulate blood pressure, immune functioning, and other restorative processes like sleep.
Your Daily Shoring exercise for today is to take at least 5 minutes to engage in mindfulness. You can use music, guided meditations, or a grounding exercise–don’t make it too complicated, but try to completely relax–without distractions–for at least 5 minutes.
Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about the mental benefits of mindfulness!
How did you practice mindfulness today?