The word “mindfulness” might evoke an image of somebody sitting cross-legged in deep meditation with incense burning nearby. However, your patients can perform almost any activity with mindfulness — not just meditation. To do something with mindfulness, they simply have to focus their awareness on the present. The benefits of mindfulness training carry over into patients’ everyday lives and can boost overall health and well-being.
“Mindfulness isn’t necessarily what everybody anticipates — that thoughts will go away and they’ll be in this place of nirvana,” says Whitney Chapman, director of health and wellness for an EXOS-managed facility. “It’s actually about slowing thoughts down so that they notice more. And there are many different meditation techniques or movement styles that enable people to have that experience.”
Research shows that finding focus actually changes the brain. Neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School used MRI technology to study the brain structure of people who engaged in mindfulness training. They found that brain volume increased in the temporoparietal junction — responsible for empathy and compassion — as well as the hippocampus, a center of learning, memory storage, and emotional regulation.
Brain volume decreased, however, in the amygdala, which triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. The decrease of gray matter in the amygdala correlates with less reactivity to stress or even general irritations.
“Patients might find that they have more patience in line at the grocery store or when they’re pushed and shoved on the subway,” Chapman explains. “Over time, they’ll realize that they can choose how to respond instead of always being in fight-or-flight mode.”
How to bring mindfulness to your patients
Yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are just some of the class styles that often have a built-in guided meditation component. In providing these practices to your patients, you can quiet their minds and help them become present in the moment during any activity. “This can be as simple as feeling one’s foot as it hits the ground when running, and paying more attention to gait,” Chapman explains. “Or noticing that the joints start to feel smoother during tai chi. Or in seated meditation, starting to notice what I call the space between the thoughts.”
To get started with a mindfulness practice, Chapman recommends that you get patients doing something they love. “There’s a different cellular response that happens when they’re doing something that they enjoy versus something that they’re told they have to do,” Chapman explains. “They’re more likely to pay attention, go into the activity motivated, and repeat it consistently.”
How practicing mindfulness changes the stress response
Deploying a regular mindfulness practice can help patients achieve calm. When stressed or anxious, the body undergoes involuntary reactions stemming from the autonomic nervous system. A person might breathe faster or sweat, causing them to feel panicked. The autonomic nervous system has two subdivisions: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These systems sometimes oppose each other with conflicting responses.
The sympathetic nervous system activates the fight-or-flight responses, while the parasympathetic nervous system activates the relaxation responses. In a heightened state of stress, a person might feel a surge of adrenaline and nausea. That’s because the sympathetic nervous system hits the off switch on some of the parasympathetic nervous system responses so that the body can focus solely on survival. However, you can introduce patients to mindfulness techniques, like focusing on breathing, to reactivate the parasympathetic nervous system and return to a calmer state.
Mindfulness should become a practice, Chapman says. “Once patients practice for a while, their practice will shift and change, and their responses will shift and change. Some days they’ll be more successful than others, but it’s cumulative.”
Mindfulness’ impact on recovery and aging
In addition to using it to help your patients keep calm, mindfulness training can assist with patient rehabilitation after an injury and with maintaining or regaining mobility while patients cope with aging or chronic illness. For example, an individual returning to activity after a lengthy recovery won’t be able to exercise at the same capacity as before. Likewise, a senior swimmer might not be able to do laps at the same speed as two decades ago.
Mindfulness training can help your patients come to terms with limitations. “Those who can come in with an energy of acceptance of where their body is now tend to have a happier outlook,” Chapman says.
The key to changing mindset
A big part of the EXOS philosophy is rooted in mindfulness, which can be a catalyst for mindset. “We need to meet people where they are right now,” says Bonnie Mattalian, vice president of community services at EXOS. “It’s not one-size-fits-all.”
That’s why a large number of offerings in any center is important. Mattalian uses yoga as just one example. Yoga has many different styles, including restorative sequences or more intense power flows. “Everyone leaves a yoga class feeling better than when they walked in,” she says. “But it’s up to us to put that in an environment where different people are going to be comfortable.”
The variety helps people choose what they crave on a given day. As a person cultivates that mindful connection with their body, they understand what it needs. “After doing an activity like yoga for a little while, clients do feel a difference,” says Mattalian. “And that changes mindset because they feel better and they keep doing it.”
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