What's the Big Deal About Mindfulness?
In the heightened pace of today's world, many of us struggle to maintain control over our thoughts and emotions, leading to difficulty with mental health, focus, and overall resilience. This is especially important for dealing with issues such as chronic pain, which can be complicated by mental and emotional health issues--not just physical! Mindfulness provides a way to slow the pace and regain control of our emotions, thoughts and sensations. By now I'm sure you have heard the word mindfulness get bounced around in health and fitness circles. But what exactly does it entail? And with all the hype, is mindfulness really worth our time and (ahem...) attention?
So what is mindfulness? According to Merriam-Webster, mindfulness is "the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis." Mindfulness is a subset of meditation, a specific way of guiding thoughts and attention to the present moment. Different techniques can be used--most revolving around somatic (body-related) sensation of the present. For instance, breathing can be used in mindfulness practice: attention is focused on the sensation of breathing, but as the attention inevitably drifts away from present sensation, the distracting thoughts are acknowledged then attention is redirected back to the breath.
What does research say? Research suggests that mindfulness can decrease stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and emotional reactivity and improve focus, productivity, sleep quality and mood. There is evidence that mindfulness can improve outcomes in patients with IBS, cancer pain, low back pain and migraine headaches as well as decrease perceived levels of pain in patients with chronic pain. A pilot study even found that mindfulness can decrease chronic pelvic pain specifically! More research needs to be done to determine consistent parameters and effectiveness with specific conditions, but the current evidence is promising. Clinically, our patients who stick with a consistent mindfulness practice demonstrate better body awareness, resilience, and breathing habits. The pelvic floor is very much linked to stress and anxiety, so our patients who practice mindfulness to combat stress and anxiety also tend to demonstrate better control over their pelvic floor tension.
So how exactly does mindfulness cause these almost miraculous effects? Research is starting to show neurological changes--essentially, mindfulness can actually restructure the brain! Over time, the brain begins to change in multiple areas. For instance, in one study, subjects who completed an 8-week mindfulness program demonstrated greater activity of the part of the brain regulating the thalamus as well as the emotional interpretation and regulation centers of the brain. The thalamus showed decreased activity, resulting in decreased nociceptive (pain) sensation.
Sign me up! How do I get started? Mindfulness takes skill, and just like any other skill, it requires practice. Imagine that you are learning a new language. You might begin by learning bits and pieces of vocabulary, then progress to speaking in phrases and sentences. But if any of you have ever taken a high school language class, you probably realized that it doesn't just turn into being able to converse in that language! Learning mindfulness means that you will start to learn the skills, but the greatest change will happen when you actually begin to practice it in "real" life. With many mindfulness apps available, you can start to create a short daily practice to begin learning the skills of mindfulness. Yet to really further the benefits, try taking those skills and applying it to other aspects of your life--mindful eating, walking, stretching, etc. Some people may benefit from working with an instructor who can create a program tailored to your needs specifically.
If you still have doubts, follow Nike's advise and Just Do It! Mindfulness exists for everyone. If you are not ready to commit a lot of time, there are even 3 minute guided meditations available online as well as on many apps. Check out our post on the top 3 mindfulness apps to get started!
Dr. Sharon Thompson is a physical therapist at PelvicSanity physical therapy, Orange County's premier pelvic floor physical therapy clinic. Sharon combines a strong orthopedic background with her skill as a pelvic floor physical therapist. She is vocal advocate for those who suffer from pelvic floor dysfunction or pain, and is especially passionate about spreading hope and awareness about these conditions. The PelvicSanity blog focuses on presenting practical, positive information to help patients beyond the walls of the clinic.