Mindfulness Meditation for stress reduction during the holidays

Most of us could do more to take care of ourselves. Where our ancestors spent daylight hours performing backbreaking labor, we’ve sat ourselves at desks in front of devices with artificial light emanating from them on a nearly 24-hour cycle. A promise of the industrial revolution was to give us more leisure; many of us have instead adopted a low-impact, but always-on, lifestyle.

I personally have found a few pillars essential to my health and well-being:

  • Well-timed sleep
  • Intense exercise
  • Nourishing food
  • Supportive relationships
  • Meaningful work

With the demands of modern society, and especially around this time of year, it is easy to become overwhelmed with deadlines; before long, I find myself running from task to task rather than actually engaging with the present moment. At these times, my sleep suffers, my exercise routine gets tossed in the garbage bin, I overindulge at the office julbord, my relationships are strained, and work tends toward being a stressor instead of an energizer. This is when I realize that perhaps my 5-pillar model to prop up my health and well-being is lacking a solid foundation. The foundation, perhaps, could be something called mindfulness.

Mindfulness, as far as I am comfortable summarizing, is a conscious practice of “living in the now”, no matter how mundane “the now” may otherwise seem. It is easy for me to be mindful while doing something like jogging through the woods, eating spicy food, or having a stimulating discussion with a friend. It often takes a more directed effort, however, to be mindful in other situations such as while brushing my teeth, waiting for the bus in the snow, or sitting quietly in a chair with my eyes closed.

My perspective on mindfulness is still rather naive, though I have nearly completed an 8-week course on mindfulness hosted at KI and led by Maria Niemi. Maria is an Assistant Professor at KI in the Department of Public Health Sciences and has conducted research on the use of mindfulness-based interventions for mental health. Through her course, I have been introduced to mindfulness practices including various forms of meditation, low-intensity yoga, and even have participated in a full-day silent retreat.

Maria Niemi leads courses on mindfulness at KI.

I was convinced of the utility of mindfulness from my very first experience in Maria’s course. Furthermore, the scientific community is coming to realize the benefits of this form of self-care. A PubMed search for the terms “mindfulness” and “stress-reduction” shows an increase in hits from 1 in 1985 to 117 this year. Maria has also shared with me an open-access meta-analysis on the use of mindfulness as an adjunct for other therapies in the treatment of chronic illness.

Mindfulness and stress-reduction is a new, but rapidly growing field area of research. This image was made using RISmed and ggplot2 packages within R (thanks for the tip Nico!).

Working within molecular biology has led me to constantly seek out and understand mechanisms of action, and the mechanism of action explaining how mindfulness can reap benefits for psychological health are not well understood. Nonetheless, from my anecdotal experiences, and from the growing body of scientific literature, I can endorse adopting a mindfulness practice. Specifically, I recommend for KI students and staff to utilize the free lunch sessions of mindfulness meditation in Solna, also led by Maria. The Health Promotion Unit at KI also offers courses in Huddinge and with focuses other than meditation via their portal to the booking system. Outside of KI, you may also explore what is offered by the Center for Mindfulness Sweden.

A final thought to consider if you would like to start becoming more mindful is that every breath in is a new opportunity to refocus on the present, and every breath out is a new opportunity to let go of the rest.

Photo credit for featured image: Autumn leaf on still water by blinkingidiot at flickr

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