Mindfulness Meditation: Health Benefits and How to Start
Humans have a natural ability to live in the present. As children, we are curious and notice even small details (like the color of a bug or a pattern in the clouds). With aging, people tend to focus less on the present moment. Instead, they process things that happened in the past or anticipate something that may occur in the future. Dwelling in the past or future can often lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.
Mindfulness meditation is a tool that helps promote well-being by training the mind to be present. It does this using moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, body sensations and environment. It is a way to counteract living life on automatic pilot and return to our natural state of curiosity and awareness.
Benefits of meditation
Studies have shown mindfulness has profound mental and physical health benefits, including:
- Boosting the immune system and increasing the healing response
- Regulating emotions to counteract depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Increasing attention and concentration, which may benefit people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Decreasing pain or changing the perception of pain
- Improving levels of happiness or satisfaction with daily life
- Activating the body’s relaxation response (the opposite of the fight-or-flight response)
Meditation is healing for your brain
Previous research has compared people with extensive meditation experience to people who do not meditate at all. Using brain scans, researchers found the meditators’ brains had a thicker prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is responsible for high-level skills such as:
- Decision making
- Impulse control
- Planning and organization
- Emotional and behavioral control
The thicker PFC in meditators was significant because scientists know brain mass begins to shrink with age (known as age-related cortical decline). The practice of meditation appears to protect against this brain shrinkage.
However, you don’t need to practice mindfulness for years to see brain improvement. Researchers have documented positive brain changes after only eight weeks of meditation.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction
While mindfulness meditation may improve brain health, it is also very effective at reducing stress and anxiety in the present.
You can meditate wherever you are, though a quiet place is best. To start:
- Close your eyes (you can meditate with your eyes open if it’s more comfortable)
- Notice any areas of your body that may feel tense, then try to soften them
- Turn your attention to your breathing, notice your chest expanding and contracting with each natural breath
- Continue to breathe in and out through your nose, focusing on your breath or the sounds around you
- As your attention wanders, gently bring it back to the present
You can spend just one to two minutes to start, then work your way to additional time. Even 20 minutes a day can make a big difference in your life.
Mindfulness: There’s an app for that
The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) offers a free app, UCLA Mindful, with basic meditations to get you started, available in English and Spanish. The app also offers:
- Wellness meditations for people suffering from challenging health conditions
- Informative videos exploring how to get started, meditation postures and the science of mindfulness
- Weekly podcasts from UCLA's Hammer Museum — a 30-minute meditation on different themes you can search for and bookmark
- A timer to meditate on your own
Visit the MARC web page to can get information about classes and events. The UCLA Mindful app is available for both iOS and Android users.