Mind over matter: why mindfulness affects your health and wellbeing

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Your body can only ever exist in one physical space at one time. We call that place the present moment. Your mind, however, can be in multiple places simultaneously, recalling past events, or predicting future outcomes. When the mind and body are not in the same place, we often fail to recognize important details in our environment-like sign on the freeway signaling us to exit, or the look of someone in need. The capacity for mental time travel is what distinguishes humans from other mammals and allows us to do things other species cannot.

When a physician makes medical judgments about a patient's health condition, for example, they draw from a stored memory bank of past experience and evidence. Lessons learned through years of specialized training are housed in our implicit unconscious, so that when prompted they can be pulled into awareness and used to guide treatment recommendations. Attention will be naturally drawn to similarities and differences in detail, subconsciously comparing experiences against one another, using if this, then that deductive reasoning to pattern match, diagnose and potentially even save a patient's life. This bottom up communication, arising from the senses and traveling to the rational pre-frontal cortex, is most often a generalized feeling referred to as intuition.

What is Mindfulness?

While the capacity for focused attention can be strengthened, it is still a finite resource. To conserve attentional resources and make decisions efficiently, human thinking is embedded with biases and general rules of thumb, known as heuristics. In times of heightened stress there is an increased tendency to rely more heavily on these shortcuts to guide decision-making. For example, a confirmation bias might cause someone to only notice information which confirms their preexisting belief and unknowingly filter out whatever disconfirms it. Mindfulness practice, which is essentially attention and awareness training, can improve self-recognition of the influence any inherent biases might have on their perception and cognition, reducing errors and potentially improving medical decision-making.

When the mind is engaged in mind wandering and rumination, the brain's so-called default mode network is active. Studies show people who spend more time operating in this circuit have lower levels of wellbeing and higher levels of stress. When we perceive a real or imagined threat in in our environment it activates our stress response. Environmental cues are detected from the environment, interpreted in our brain based on meaning from past experience, and shoot signals to our limbic system to speed up our heart rate and breathe quickly. Our attention shrinks, the threat fills our awareness, and our body prepares to either fight or flee from danger. If this stress response is activated chronically, or for prolonged periods of time, it can wreak havoc on our health and wellbeing, leading us to have weakened immune function or gain weight, to name a few. From an evolutionary perspective this makes perfect sense-- if I am about to be eaten by a predator my body has no reason to use its energy reserves to maintain my immune system. Instead, it will prepare for to run from danger by metabolizing glucose reserves, driving my blood sugars up and storing fat in my cells. Fortunately for us, many threats of modern times are cognitive distortions of perception, reflections of beliefs about the thing and not necessarily the thing itself (i.e. there's no lion chasing us). Through training our capacity to detect what is occurring within us, as well as outside of us, we develop a meta-awareness to witness our own thoughts without following them down the rabbit hole of stress. Mindfulness tools can help us work with our thinking, and gain greater control over our life so we care better equipped to manage stress with increased flexibility.

Re-training Our Minds

With the mind actively engaged in the present, the constant stream of judging and comparing is silenced, and a sense of gratitude naturally arises. Mindfulness only requires us to accept the circumstances of our life in order to flip our change our perspective to what we can do, rather than seeing those circumstances as happening to us. Any time the novelty of something new becomes familiar, be it technology, a loving relationship or your morning route to work, we risk being less present with it. Mindfulness teaches us how to be intentional with our attention, so we continue to appreciate the good things in our life with fresh eyes (referred to as 'Beginners Mind'). Each time we practice these skills of mindfulness neural networks are etched in to our brain that makes them less effortful, sort of like going to a mental gym. With enough practice, the new behavior eventually becomes effortless and our default behavior.

Mind-body medicine, once thought of as "woo woo" pseudoscience is becoming an increasingly more mainstream way to minimize suffering and improve the health and wellbeing of our population. As advances in neuroscience continue to evolve, the worldview of the mind and body as separate from one another will be replaced by recognition of their interconnection. Currently, Methodist Dallas Medical Center is working on a program to integrate mindfulness into oncology care and help patients, caregivers and providers manage stress, facilitate attuned patient-provider communication, and live more fully in the present moment.