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The Scarlet & Black

This Week in Wellness: Mindfulness to improve focus and reduce stress levels

Whether you’ve tried it or not, you’ve probably heard of mindfulness meditation, the technique for introspection and clearing one’s mind. Some schools have introduced mindfulness programs into their classrooms to help students improve their focus and lower their stress levels and all kinds of meditation apps are available for download today, from Headspace, which offers guided and unguided meditations, to basic ones like Breathe+ and BreathingApp, which provide rhythmic visuals and sounds to help the user establish a calm breathing pattern. But what exactly is mindfulness, and is it an effective technique to reduce stress?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at University of Massachusetts Medical School and the creator of several mindfulness-based stress-relief programs, described mindfulness in a January 2017 interview with as an “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.” During a meditation, participants attempt to keep their minds free of thoughts that are not relevant to their immediate experience. When a thought wanders in, though, the participant will notice the thought, recognize it and then gently and nonjudgmentally push it away. According to its proponents, the method allows participants to gain greater peace with themselves and their immediate environment.

Scientific studies surrounding mindfulness have so far generally been relatively small in scope, making it difficult to make a comprehensive statement about the neurobiological impact of regular meditation. However, what evidence is currently available reflects positively, for the most part, on the practice. It is believed that the benefits of mindfulness come from neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to “rewire” its own neurons. Because of this, mindfulness has begun to gain traction in the medical community as a technique to improve mental health. Application of mindfulness by people with anxiety disorders and chronic physical ailments shows some signs of reducing depression and increasing stability. Meditation is in no way a replacement for psychiatric medication, but it may be a helpful practice for those who take it, as well as being an option for mental health improvement for people with milder conditions who are not on medication.

Mindfulness may also be a useful practice for people who do not have a specific mental health concern but feel stressed or burned out. A study published in Biological Psychiatry in July 2016 provides evidence that mindfulness meditation can physically change the brain and lead to a happier, more relaxed everyday life. The study measured the effects of practicing mindfulness meditation against the effects of having done a non-mindfulness-based relaxation activity on 35 subjects, all of whom were unemployed and experiencing considerable daily stress. At the end of the three-day program, both the mindfulness group and the placebo group reported feeling better and more relaxed, but when the subjects’ brains were scanned, only members of the mindfulness group had physical changes in their brains, including higher levels of communication between the parts of the brain relating to stress, calmness and focus, and lower levels of brain inflammation than the placebo group. I’d certainly say mindfulness is worth trying.

This week’s book:

Want to read more but just don’t have the time? You can’t go wrong with “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri, a 1999 collection of nine short stories about love and relationships that range from heartbreaking to hopeful. They’re substantial enough that readers gain a clear look into characters’ lives, but short enough to fit in between homework assignments and meetings.

This week’s music:

Saying goodbye to summer takes a soothing-yet-danceable soundtrack, and for that there’s no better album than “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook.” It’s the only one of Fitzgerald’s Songbook albums where the featured composer performs — Ellington and his orchestra back each performance, with some really spectacular solos. My personal favorites include “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing.”

This week’s recipe:

Flourless egg muffins

Mix together 4 beaten eggs, ½ teaspoon salt (and pepper, if you want), 1 cup grated cheese and 1 cup broccoli, spinach, kale or other green vegetable. Pour into muffin tin (makes around 6 muffins) or medium glass baking dish and bake for 12-15 minutes at 375 degrees. Can function as breakfast, lunch, dinner, midnight snack, midday snack, procrastination project or potluck contribution.

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