Mindfulness Meditation: A Solution for Everyday Stress

Healthy Outlook spoke to Overlake psychiatrist, Juan Antonio Avila, MD, about practicing mindfulness meditation and how it can help your overall well-being.

"The goal of mindfulness meditation is to focus on the now."

Deep breath in; breathe out. Is that how meditation works? Although it can be as simple as that, mindfulness is a meditation practice that helps you focus on the present to decrease stress and anxiety. And, you can do it anywhere. You don’t need a yoga studio or a dark room. In fact, the more you practice in distracting environments, the better you get at tuning out those distractions.

What is the difference between meditation and mindfulness meditation?

Meditation is the act of bringing your attention and awareness to a particular subject or object; you contemplate something. Mindfulness meditation is a kind of meditation that brings your attention to the present moment – being in the now. We usually do this is by focusing on our breathing, but there are other ways of practicing, too. From walking meditation, in which you walk very slowly and you focus on the process of taking steps, to eating meditation, the goal is to just focus on the now.

How can it help with everyday stress?

Mindfulness is beneficial for coping with life stressors and helps with focusing on what is important. There’s quite a bit of research showing that practicing mindfulness meditation is helpful for engagement in the workplace – people who practice it feel like they’re more satisfied at work. Especially for those who are in difficult situations at work, they find it helpful to be able to take a minute or two and then go back to work with more focus.

Are there scientifically proven health benefits to mindfulness meditation?

Yes, there is quite a bit of research that indicates it decreases anxiety and depressive symptoms. It has also been shown to increase the areas of your brain related to emotional regulation, as well as the area of the brain related to compassion. There is research that shows it improves our immune system, decreases cellular inflammation and helps with pain. Research also suggests it helps people with irritable bowel syndrome.

How long have you been practicing, and how has it been beneficial to you?

I started in 2004, while conducting research at Louisiana State University on the benefits of mindfulness meditation to decrease cravings in patients with alcohol dependence. I continued practicing after that, and I think it has helped me build compassion, and it helps me focus on what is important.

What are some tips on how to get started?

The easiest way to get started is by listening to guided meditation. There are several apps I would recommend, including Insight Timer, Calm, Headspace or Smiling Mind. If you have the time, visit a meditation or “Zen” center, where they usually offer open meditation sessions and sometimes have courses and retreats.

Whichever way you start, don’t be discouraged by all the thoughts that come into your head, and, at some point, when you ask yourself, “What am I doing? I’m wasting my time sitting here and I can’t even focus.” That is the whole point of meditation: sitting with yourself and observing how your mind works.