Why Be Mindful? Training Your Brain Brings Health Benefits

By Gus Castellanos, MD, Wellness Center Specialist, With Foreword By Lynette Laufenberg, Wellness Center Director

So you can honestly say that you have developed a habit of working out, you have placed high importance on your nutritional plan, but have you added the element of mindfulness and meditation to your overall wellness program? According to Parade magazine, this component is the No. 1 health-booster in 2015.

Our in-house “mindfulness” expert, Gus Castellanos, M.D., who has been clinically trained in neurology and sleep medicine, studied at U Mass’s Medical School Center for Mindfulness in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. He brings his expertise to the Wellness Center at Ultima and has most recently been offering a four-week course based on the MBSR program. Here, Gus shares his thoughts on the importance of mindfulness.

Why Be Mindful?

Mindfulness has become popular because of the benefits that are directly experienced by those that practice it. For more than 30 years, mindfulness programs have been taught in hundreds of medical centers worldwide because of their effectiveness in a wide array of physical and psychological disorders and for stress reduction. In addition, most large companies, including most Fortune 500 companies, are offering mindfulness programs for their leaders and employees. Because of mindfulness’ effectiveness in a variety of skills and competencies that include focused attention and reduced distractibility, working memory, emotional regulation, empathy and compassion, critical thinking and problem-solving, programs have been adapted to specific populations such as the U.S. military, police departments, correctional facilities, public school systems and colleges, government agencies and sports teams (including the Seattle Seahawks, the New York Knicks and the Boston Red Sox).

Mindfulness can be defined in many ways, loosely as the awareness of the present moment as it unfolds with an open and nonjudgmental attitude. A more specific definition comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts, considered the premier program for mindfulness training in the west. He defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Inherent in any definition of mindfulness is the ability to see clearly what is happening on a moment-to-moment basis, including one’s thoughts, judgments, storylines, actions and reactions. With this clear seeing of what is arising, we can see the effects of our habitual and reactive patterns and correlate them to our actions and their results in our lives.

Mindfulness can bring us from a reactive, autopilot mode, to a more aware and responsive mode, so that we can make wiser, healthier choices in any given situation, especially the stressful, emotional or chaotic ones.

Because of this, individuals regularly practicing mindfulness experience enhanced self-awareness and improved mood regulation, leading to reduced depression, anxiety and insomnia, and stress reduction, with improvement in the immune system and a wide range of physical disorders. There is also increased clarity and creative thinking, improved problem-solving and decision-making, which contributes to well-being and resiliency. And because mindfulness enhances empathy and compassion, beginning with self-compassion, mindful people report better personal and professional relationships.

Neuroscience is revealing how mindfulness works — by changing the brain through neuroplasticity. By practicing mindfulness regularly, we change our brain and experience a variety of healthy effects on our mental and physical health, as well as in improving and enhancing one’s personal and professional relationships. These beneficial skills become traits that are readily accessible at all times. The parts of the brain concerned with self and emotional regulation, improving attention, working memory, empathy, and reducing distractibility and negative emotions are more active and prominent in mindfulness practitioners. And although these brain changes are seen with just a few hours of brief practices, their sustainability and enhancement are correlated to the amount of practice — that is, the more one practices, the more the brain changes take hold by creating more stable neural pathways.

As such, mindfulness can be thought of as a brain training — brain fitness program, helping build the circuits in the brain just as weight training/lifting builds muscle. It should be part of any comprehensive wellness program to improve well-being, longevity and the quality of life. Mindfulness — using the mind to change the brain, to change the mind, for the benefit of oneself and others. It’s a real know-brainer!

For more information, or to learn about upcoming sessions, e-mail lynette@ultimafitness.com. Ultima Fitness is located at 12799 W. Forest Hill Blvd. in Wellington. For more info., call (561) 795-2823 or visit www.ultimafitness.com.