Mindfulness is Medicine

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is commonly defined as a type of meditation, where individuals practice being completely engaged in the present moment. It may also be defined as a state of awareness.

Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism, and is an ancient spiritual practice. However, mindfulness has been integrated into Western Medicine and psychology in various ways. The introduction of mindfulness is linked to the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the 1950’s. As Zen Buddhism grew in popularity, providers began to integrate certain techniques into their medical and psychological practices.

“Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment in full awareness, with the intention to embody as best we can an orientation of calmness, mindfulness, and equanimity right here and right now.” –

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Clinicians have been studying the efficacy of mindfulness as a therapy since the 1970’s. Much of what they have found has influenced how we approach and treat various conditions. From the very beginning, researchers have been studying the effect of mindfulness meditation in individuals with chronic pain. What was found was that mindfulness was associated with positive outcomes for individuals with pain and chronic conditions. 

This inspired Jon Kabat-Zinn to create Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Therapy, which is now used to treat not only individuals in need of stress management, but it is also used to treat other illnesses such as depression, anxiety, pain, and other conditions.

Do not underestimate stress

Stress has a huge impact on us, in fact, it can influence every system in our body, especially when we experience chronic stress. Research shows that stress impacts our nervous system and also can cause structural changes in the brain. Chronic stress can even decrease the brain’s weight and atrophy brain mass.  When a person experiences stress, one may experience memory loss, it can also impact how one learns, it can contribute to depression, and even impair our immune systems. 

In the United States, stress is a contributing factor to the top six leading causes of death: cancer, heart disease, accidents, respiratory disorder, cirrhosis, and suicide. The CDC has estimated that 75% of all visits in the United States are most likely attributed to stress and a recent study reports that nearly one-third of Americans live with “extreme stress.”

Mindfulness is medicine.

In order to take a deeper dive, a study looked at the effects of meditation on participants using brain imaging techniques such as fMRI and ASL. Participants reported a 40% reduction in intensity of pain and a 57% reduction in unpleasant feelings. More interestingly than the patient’s self report is what the researchers found in the images, “activation of the subgenual ACC (sgACC), OFC, and right anterior insula was associated with mindfulness meditation–based analgesia.” 

What they determined was that, “meditation may reduce pain by fine-tuning the amplification of nociceptive sensory events through top-down control processes.” What they concluded was that mindfulness meditation works to reduce pain in individuals through various mechanisms in the nervous system.

Other studies have found that mindfulness meditation has a positive effect on well-being, psychological health, and emotional regulation. Specifically, over an 8-week period, mindfulness was found to boost immunity, lower heart rate, increase empathy and compassion, and even protect the body from diseased cells.

How can I practice mindfulness?

Go a head, take a moment.

“Just watch this moment, without trying to change it at all. What is happening? What do you feel? What do you see? What do you hear?”

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Growing up: health education

Do you remember the first time you took yourself to the doctor or health care professional? Was it for an injury or illness?  Maybe your first ob/gyn visit? Or a vaccination.

Did you know what questions to ask? Did you feel like you explained your symptoms properly? Did you know what treatment to choose? Did you feel comfortable?

During childhood and adolescents, we rely on our caretakers for our health care and wellness education. When we become adults we are responsible for our own health care and wellness. It may seem as if one day we find ourselves navigating the complex US healthcare system and insurance providers alone.

Throughout our lives we rely on our community, education systems, and workplaces to provide us with proper health education information.

School based health exams

All children in the United States are granted basic education through the public schooling system.The CDC has worked to identify health issues that act as barriers to children’s learning in our school systems. In order to combat these barriers, some schools require school-based health screenings in order to address any health care needs of the individual student. Other schools require documentation of healthcare visits and proof of vaccinations. 

However, schools do not mandate comprehensive wellness exams to address all of the barriers identified. In 2018, it was reported that overall 19% of children aged 6 to 11 and 44% of uninsured children in the US did not receive an annual wellness visit.

Health education impacts

In 1995, the CDC developed the National Health Education Standards to educate children in the schooling system from pre-k to grade 12. Health education covers a variety of topics ranging from disease prevention, family influences, access to valid information, ways to reduce health risks, and how to make positive health decisions. Students in pre-k to grade 2 receive forty hours of health education each year and students grade 3 to 12 receive eighty hours per year.

In 2017, researchers discovered that those who are healthier appear to learn better. However, research shows that our health education needs improvement: 

• In 2016, 20% of schools did not have policies in regards to education preventing alcohol and drug abuse.

But what is the impact of caretakers/elders who rely on the schooling systems for their students’ health care and take a back seat at home? What if a caretaker has their own health anxieties that result in avoiding care? How does our caretaker approach to health impact our own approach as adults?

Research shows that when parents or caretakers actively participate in their students’ health education, the students are more likely to have a positive outcome. The CDC has launched several campaigns that work with schools on ways to encourage parents and caretakers to be more involved with school health education and students wellness.

Adult health: continuing education

When was the last time you went to the doctor? Did you go to urgent care when you were sick? Did you visit your family doctor? Or does Google know more about your health than anyone else on this planet?

So much of our health and wellness education takes place at a young age when most of us can’t even imagine that we’ll ever get old.

As adults, our education and ideas about health come from what we are exposed to: public health awareness campaigns, corporate wellness programs, commercials, billboards, community organizations, and articles.  

Why is health education important? 

Well, for example did you know that men aged 18 to 39 are recommended the following?

  • Blood pressure check every 2 years
  • Cholesterol screening and heart disease prevention every five years in healthy men
  • Dental cleanings every six months
  • Eye exam every 2 years or more depending
  • Yearly flu shot
  • Tetanus booster every ten years
  • HPV vaccine
  • Hepatitis C lab
  • A physical exam during each exam
  • Skin checks for signs of cancer
  • STD screening

https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007464.htm

And women aged 18 to 39 are recommended:

  • Blood pressure check every 2 years
  • Cholesterol screening and heart disease prevention every five years in healthy men
  • Dental cleanings every six months
  • Eye exam every 2 years or more depending
  • Yearly flu shot
  • Tetanus booster every ten years
  • HPV vaccine
  • Hepatitis C lab
  • A physical exam during each exam
  • Skin checks for signs of cancer
  • STD screening
  • Monthly breast self-exam
  • Cervical cancer screening starting at twenty-one and once every three years
  • Mammograms are not recommended until forty, unless there is family history. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007462.htm

You may have read through this list and recognized these appointments as something that you have incorporated into your life. You may feel as if you see your provider more frequently than your friends. Or, you may be you did not know where, when, or who to go to for these health exams.

A study reported that only 44 million adults received their yearly preventative health exam and only about 17% of women received a preventive gynecological exam. 

Health insured: better outcomes

In 2018, a CDC survey found that 30.1 million people under the age of sixty-five were uninsured however, access to health insurance through the Affordable Care Act decreased the percentage of uninsured adults over a two year period. 

Health insurance coverage has proven to be positively associated with better health outcomes, reduced disparities, and mortality.

Approach to wellness: why does it matter?

You may like to take a holistic approach to medicine, treating your whole system, addressing mind, body and spirit, instead of just the problem areas. This is known as an Osteopathic approach, and doctors with this approach are DO’s. 

Or you might prefer an evidence-based approach. This is commonly referred to as Western Medicine, but is considered Allopathic Medicine

Having an idea of your providers training, education, and approach to treatment can help ease any pre-appointment anxiety. Knowing what to expect from your provider in terms of recommendations, suggestions, and questions can help make you feel more comfortable with your treatment and health care exam.

Appointment style: everybody has one

Do you prefer to go to your appointments alone? Or do you prefer to bring a friend. 

Everyone has their own preferences, if you feel comfortable going alone, that’s great! If you prefer to bring a friend or relative, you should feel more than comfortable. In fact, during high stress appointments having a companion can help with any nervousness you might have, they can also take notes, and remind you of anything you might have forgotten to ask!

Do you remember your first ‘adult’ wellness visit? What was it like?

Do you have any health care experiences that have impacted you over the years? Whether it was a good experience or a bad experience?

We’d love to hear about how you’ve navigated your health care.