We are dealing with too many threats these days. We need to calm down. With mindfulness, we can relax and slow down the pace. Stress puts our body on alert. “Breathing goes a little faster, which means more oxygen gets into the body, which the muscles in turn need. Glucose and fat are broken down. Senses are heightened, such as tendons and hearing, which makes us more alert. The heart beats faster, up to three times faster, and blood pressure increases. Some veins narrow to allow most of the blood to flow to the muscles and brain and away from the skin and organs. Platelets become denser, which means that if an injury occurs, a wound can close more quickly. The immune system becomes more alert. Muscles become stronger. The body switches to emergency systems. Supplies only the parts that are absolutely needed. Stomach and intestines are virtually shut down and the sex drive is also almost switched off. The skin heals worse,” is how Dr. Anne Fabiny describes our body’s reactions.
Our nervous system, she says, is divided into two parts. One part reacts with the above symptoms when stressed. The other part calms the body down once the immediate danger has passed. The only problem is that today the danger never really subsides. We are exposed to permanent stress, on the way to work in traffic, on the job, even when cycling in our free time. Psychological pressure is added, money worries for example, or problems in the family. This means that our nervous system is in a permanent state of alert and cannot rest.
Mindfulness can help against inflammation and stomach problems
At the Benson Henry Institute it has been discovered that when the calming part of our nervous system is activated, certain changes are found – at least temporarily – in some genes that influence our health. For example, genes responsible for inflammation are turned off. Many scientists are now convinced that inflammation in the body and stress are causally linked, for example heart disease, stomach problems and diabetes. At the same time, helpful body functions are activated: More insulin is released to regulate sugar levels, telomeres are repaired (the parts of our gene ends, chromosomes that erode as we age), and the functions of mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells, are improved. Ultimately, this also reduces what is known as oxidative stress, which is blamed for cellular damage.
In the studies in Harvard as well as in Israel, groups were examined who either did not practice mindfulness exercises at all, over a longer period of time or only for two months. After just eight weeks, improvements in gene activity were found in the blood samples of the participants, while no changes were found in the control group.
Mindfulness is often confused with concentration. However, they are two different things. By concentration, we mean that we devote our entire attention to a particular thought or activity, largely ignoring our surroundings. Mindfulness, however, goes beyond concentration to include what is happening around us, but without allowing ourselves to be distracted. Instead of focusing on one object, you expand your view. It’s a bit like taking a photograph: with a macro lens, you can get up close to a bee and even see the proboscis. With a wide-angle lens, on the other hand, you can see not only the bee, but the whole meadow.