About Medicine: Mindfulness is knowing our body's needs

Sarah Lidstrom, RN
Corvallis Family Medicine
1037 Main Street
Corvallis, MT 59828
(406) 961-4661

Mindfulness: Knowing Our Body's Needs
Most days, our lives are riddled with tasks needing to be completed, errands to run, people to see and families to care for. This is all in addition to working all day to pay our bills. Our lives are frequently so busy that we have little time to spend taking care of our bodies or even think about our daily health habits. We wake up tired in the morning and rush out the door without eating breakfast.

We don't stop to think about what prevented us from waking up well rested. Were we exposed to too much stimulation prior to going to bed? Were we tired from staying up late the night before? Was our mind racing all night?

We eat at least three times a day but sometimes can't remember what we ate for lunch yesterday and we certainly can't remember how the components of that meal impacted how we felt the rest of the afternoon. Many times we can't find time in our day to exercise, and we don't pay any mind to our bowel habits, hydration or to our sleep pattern. When we feel down we often just try to move past it rather than analyzing exactly what we are feeling. We find it easiest to attribute our "not feeling well" to our stressful, busy lives.

When we step back to look at how little effort we often put into the daily care of our bodies, what we see can be surprising. Many of us dedicate a lot of time to caring for our houses, keeping them clean and organized. We take care of our lawns, gardens, and landscaping. Yet, we don't always give the same attention to taking care of our most immediate surroundings: our bodies.

When our lives are filled with chaos, it can be difficult to find the time to pay attention to our daily health habits. But what if we could simply make that a part of our lifestyle? Well with a little practice, we can. The end goal is simply being more aware of what is happening with our bodies in the present. This is referred to as being "mindful". We need to be fully aware of what is happening in and around our bodies and how we are feeling to know what it is we need to do to care for ourselves.

Although there are many different exercises that can be used to achieve mindfulness, meditation is among the most popular. This is the mind and body practice of focusing our thoughts in a way that will in turn relax our minds and allow us to be aware of the present. There are many forms of meditation, any of which can be tailored to our personal preference. Meditation does not have to be a spiritual experience but can be if we want it to. We don't have to assume any specific position but should choose whatever position is comfortable for us.

One popular form of meditation is that of sensory meditation, or becoming mindful of the sensations in our bodies. We can start by committing just minutes each day to being aware of the sensations we experience on a daily basis. For instance, most of us probably brush our teeth each morning. We can utilize those few minutes in our day to simply be aware. This means we focus on and explore only the smells, tastes, textures, sounds and other sensations we are experiencing at that moment in time. If our minds wander to thinking about what might happen at work later that day or what chores need to be done, we simply need to redirect our thoughts. We can do the same exercises when we are standing in line at the grocery store or sitting in the car waiting to pick our children up from school.

We are surrounded by so much stimulation that often we go through our day not noticing how our bodies are affected by the sensations we experience. When we smell something delicious, we are often inclined to eat, even if we are not hungry. The goal of these exercises is to become fully aware of what is happening in and around our bodies at any moment in time so we can respond to our body's actual needs rather than the external stimulation we experience.

Another form of meditation revolves around mindful breathing. This is done by focusing only on each breath we take. We focus on the air moving through our airway and filling up our lungs before each slow exhale. This can be done in any setting but is easiest to do in a quiet space. Again, if our mind wonders away from our breathing, we simply redirect. Oxygen is one of our most vital needs as humans; without it we couldn't exist. Yet frequently, we go through full days without so much as even thinking about our breathing.

It is not an easy task to keep our thoughts so focused during these exercises, and it takes much practice, but these few minutes every day can help establish a lifestyle of mindfulness for all of us, allowing us to become more aware of how our bodies are functioning and how our daily habits effect how we are feeling. We can apply the same principles to becoming mindful of our emotions as well.

Research is proving that mindfulness and meditation can actually improve our physical and mental health in many ways. The evidence shows that if we are able to make mindfulness a way of life, we can decrease anxiety and depression, curb insomnia, help manage chronic pain, help lower our blood pressure and improve our overall quality of life. Studies are even suggesting that meditation may cause positive structural changes in our brain. By using these tools to become mindful, we increase our body awareness so we can better regulate external stimuli in our everyday lives and better manage our health.

Questions and or comments regarding this week's health column please contact Sarah Lidstrom, RN at Corvallis Family Medicine, a Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital owned clinic, 1037 Main Street, Corvallis, MT 59828. Working together to build a healthier community!


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