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The art of mindfulness: An expert’s 3-step guide to embracing the present

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Could changing the way you think for a few moments a day lead to a healthier you? According to the American Psychological Association (APA), practicing the art of mindfulness can help manage and reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Mindfulness training influences health through stress reduction pathways, which, in turn, leads to improved health. And it’s no secret that one of the best things you can do for the people you love is take care of yourself.

What is mindfulness training?

SIU School of Medicine’s Ruta Kulys, LCSW, is certified in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Kulys notes that mindfulness, or the awareness of one’s thoughts and emotions, has the potential to help us respond rather than react

“Mindfulness training helps people develop their ability to concentrate and to be aware of their experience as it occurs,” explains Kulys, who has been teaching this practice to patients for more than 20 years. “Mindfulness practice gives us the tools to learn about ourselves — our emotions, our thoughts, what we are feeling in our bodies. These are constantly changing and the practice is an opportunity to pay attention and to take stock of our own experiences.”

In its most basic form, mindfulness training is learning to pay attention. “It’s simple, but it involves practice. Just as you can’t learn to play the piano in a day, mindfulness training takes regular practice,” Kulys says.

What are the benefits of mindfulness training?

“People who practice regularly report feeling calmer, feel better equipped to handle the tough times and better able to appreciate the good times,” she says. 

The APA suggests that mindfulness can positively affect the structure of the brain and change brain activity by influencing two different stress pathways in the brain. When people become stressed, activity in the prefrontal cortex decreases while activity in other areas of the brain, including the hypothalamus and amygdala, increases. Chronic stress can lead to a range of health issues, including hypertension, GI problems, anxiety and depression. Mindfulness training, however, has been shown to reverse this pattern, softening the biological response to stress.

“If we don’t have healthy ways to manage stress, then we use unhealthy ways to manage stress: we eat too much, drink too much, work too much and further damage our health,” explains Kulys. But mindfulness training provides the opportunity to pay attention and notice the small physical and emotional signs of stress. This helps address the stress before it becomes too big of a problem to ignore.

Learn to be more mindful 

Kulys recommends taking three simple steps:

Stop and breathe. Noticing your breath brings you into the present and can help you shift out of automatic-pilot.

Do one thing at a time. Take a break from multi-tasking and pay attention to doing just one thing. When you are eating, just eat. When you are listening to someone, give them your undivided attention.

Check in with yourself. Take a few minutes a day to become aware of what you feel in your body, what your predominant mood is and what thoughts are occupying your mind. Use this knowledge to inform how you take care of yourself.

BONUS STEP: Remind yourself that it is not selfish to focus on yourself. Taking care of yourself is not selfish; it is responsible. No one can do it but you.

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