You're on a conference call while responding to an email and eating your lunch. Sound familiar? Most people divide their attention between several tasks at once without being truly engaged in any of them. But your well-being could suffer as a result.
If you want to jump-start your health in the New Year, then just be. Mindfulness, the art of being fully present in the moment, may give your mind and your body a boost.
"There's consistent evidence that mindfulness reduces stress, depression, and anxiety, and that flows into other things," says Karen O'Leary, PhD, a researcher in applied psychology at University College in Cork, Ireland.
It's linked to physical perks too, she says. O'Leary studies mindfulness as a way to improve women's quality of life during pregnancy, reduce labor pain, and improve their babies' birth weight.
The concept of mindfulness comes from ancient Buddhist meditation, but Westerners often practice a modern, secular form. Usually starting with deep focus on the breath, a mindful person pays full attention to the present moment and all the thoughts, feelings, and sensations associated with that moment.
"You don't judge the moment as good or bad," O'Leary says. "You just live it, with the knowledge that it will soon pass." During that moment, she says, let go of any thoughts about the past, the future, or anything other than now.
What benefits does mindfulness offer? Plenty, according to recent research. It can better your test scores and working memory -- the type of memory you use to do a math problem in your head. It may help improve depression, anxiety, and sleep quality, too.
Mindful people might have lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, and better heart health. One study found that people who got a flu vaccine after 8 weeks of mindfulness training developed more antibodies against the flu than those who only got the vaccine. It may relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and cut down on migraines, too.
It could also ease pain -- or at least your perception of it. That's because it trains you not to dwell on the hurt, O'Leary says.
What do many of these conditions have in common? Stress. "Two main components of mindfulness are an openness to all experience and an acceptance of all feelings and sensations, whether good or bad," O'Leary says. "That practice can help reduce stress."
Want to try mindfulness yourself? O'Leary suggests a 10- to 20-minute "body scan" meditation.
Sit up straight in a chair with both feet on the floor and your hands on your thighs.
Close your eyes.
Pay attention to your breath as you inhale and exhale.
Focus on your forehead, then the bridge of your nose, your cheeks, and so on down the body till you reach your toes.
As you go, focus only on the sensations in one part of the body and let all other thoughts go.
With practice, you can apply this level of awareness and attention to any of the activities in your daily life.
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