What is mindfulness and why is it good for our health?

Aug. 5, 2021
Meditation and mindfulness. Three women do yoga. Photo: iStock.
Meditation and yoga have been proven to be good for our health. But, what is mindfulness? Photo: iStock.

Meditation and mindfulness are trendy these days, but what is mindfulness and why is it so good for our health?

Dr. Meredith Shefferman has a doctorate in psychology and practices at the UCHealth Integrative Medicine Center in Denver’s Central Park neighborhood. Shefferman is a specialist in mindfulness and helps patients who are dealing with chronic pain, anxiety, stress and an array of other challenges.

Shefferman recently shared her expertise with The evrē Podcast for women and we captured her wisdom for you here. (Listen to Shefferman and do a meditation with her on episode 11 of the podcast: Meditation: The new superpower.

What is mindfulness?

“Mindfulness is the practice of bringing your full attention into the present moment without judgment,” Shefferman said.

Being present in each moment sounds easy enough, but it’s actually quite challenging.

Most of us are distracted constantly and our minds dart from one task to another.

“Our bodies might be here, but our minds are off on our grocery lists or the things we are doing this weekend or all the things we have to get done,” Shefferman said.

With practice, can you get better at mindfulness?

“Yes,” Shefferman said. “Mindfulness helps you to learn to focus your attention into the present moment and to make room for whatever that present moment is, whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, whatever it might be.”

How is mindfulness different from meditation?

“Meditation is a specific way to practice mindfulness,” Shefferman said. “There are lots of different ways that you can be mindful, but meditation is the formal practice that is used to really help you tune into the present moment.”

Are there proven benefits to mindfulness?

“Absolutely. There has been extensive research over the last few decades, really an explosion of research, showing all the benefits of mindfulness meditation, whether that is for pain reduction, stress reduction, helping with anxiety, depression, burnout prevention, improved sleep, etc. There are many benefits as well for various issues such as hypertension, heart disease, prevention of postpartum depression and mitigating the impacts of menopause,” Shefferman said.

How does mindfulness help with stress?

“Stress has a tremendous impact on health,” Shefferman said. “When we get stressed, there is a flood of cortisol that is released in the brain. When there is a tiger chasing you, it is helpful to get that boost of cortisol. It helps your body fight or flee.

“However, when we’re chronically in this state of stress and we’re constantly being flooded by cortisol and other stress hormones, it produces inflammation in the body. It makes it so that your body is less able to be resilient. Your body gets tired, because our bodies aren’t meant to be in a constant state of stress. It is supposed to be a brief fight or flight.”

How do stress and cortisol hurt our bodies?

“When we’re constantly stressed, our bodies are just overwhelmed with cortisol and other stress hormones that make us less able to fight off disease,” Shefferman said. “It causes greater inflammation in the body, which can lead to greater disease process. It can interfere with sleep and, of course, we need sleep to be healthy.”

How do you get started with mindfulness when you are feeling stressed?

Awareness is really key. We can focus on how our bodies are feeling, Shefferman said.

“Often we are on autopilot. We are just going through the motions, going from thing to thing to thing and we don’t know that our shoulders are way up here or our jaw is clenched, or we are not taking full, deep breaths. And so, mindfulness can help you start to recognize those signs of stress so that you can choose to respond differently rather than just mindlessly reacting in the moment.”

What do you do when you are feeling stressed?

“When I recognize that my belly is clenched or my shoulders are up or my jaw is clenched, I tell myself, ‘OK. Take a breath. Plant your feet on the floor. Remember to be here in this moment. Everything is OK,” Shefferman said.

How does a ‘practice’ of mindfulness help? Do you actually practice and get better?

“Yes. You remember to do it and you make it a habit. The more you practice mindfulness, the better you get at it. Research shows that practicing 15-to-20 minutes of mindfulness per day literally changes the way your brain wires and fires.  Practicing meditation results in increased neural density in the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved in executive functioning, focus, concentration and regulation of emotions. Meditation practice also results in decreased brain density in the amygdala, which is the fear and anxiety center of the brain. So, the more you practice, the better you get at focusing and redirecting your attention with less emotional reactivity. That’s what I teach my patients to do.”

How can meditation help us handle our emotions?

Dr. Meredith Shefferman is an expert on mindfulness.
Dr. Meredith Shefferman is an expert on mindfulness. Photo courtesy of Meredith Shefferman.

“No one likes to be uncomfortable and to deal with difficult emotions, such as sadness or anger or anxiety,” Shefferman said. “So we typically don’t want to feel that and we learn to distract from it, whether that be through Netflix, social media, having a drink or eating or whatever might distract us from this discomfort.

“When we do that habitually, we train ourselves that we’re not able to handle this. Whereas, if we can sit with that discomfort, be with it, ride it out like we’re surfing a wave, and recognize that it’s temporary, then we can calm down and handle it.

“Once we calm down, we can tell ourselves, ‘I’m OK. Nothing bad happened.’ Then we learn that we don’t have to distract ourselves and we can manage (our feelings). The more we learn to sit with our emotions, the more confident we become in our ability to handle them, and we learn to find a sense of self-compassion about it.

“Also, the more we practice meditation, the less emotionally reactive we become. We are able to use our calm, rational mind to respond rather than mindlessly responding with our more emotional, reptilian brain.”

How do you practice mindfulness? Do you chant, breathe or use an app?

“I try to practice formal meditation most days. It doesn’t always happen, but I try to do at least 15 or 20 minutes. Often, I do use an app. I like to use guided meditation. So, there are tons of different meditation apps popping up each day. Some of my favorites are Insight timer, Calm, 10% Happier. Those are my go-to ones.

“Sometimes, if I don’t feel like doing a full 15 or 20-minute practice, I’ll just plant my feet on the floor and take a few deep breaths. It doesn’t have to be a 20 or 30-minute formal practice.

“Everyone has even 30 seconds to just kind of tune into the present moment, check in with their breath, feel your body in space.”

Can I meditate while walking?

“Sure. If you’re walking from your car to the parking lot or your office, pay attention to each footstep. Notice the way that your foot hits the ground, the way that your legs shift weight as you move, the muscles in your core engaging,” Shefferman said. “What are your arms doing? Pay attention to what you can see, hear and feel.”

Is yoga a form of mindfulness?

“Yes. Yoga is a form of mindfulness because you are paying attention to what your body is doing. You’re tapping into your breath and then of course, at the end of yoga, the best part is the savasana. That is meditation right there, just feeling your body in space and connecting with your breath,” Shefferman said.

“So, yes, yoga is a wonderful way to practice mindfulness.”

What if I can’t sit still or I’m distracted all the time?

“Don’t worry. The goal isn’t to clear your mind. I think that’s where people get in trouble and they think, ‘Oh, I can’t do this. This isn’t for me; I suck at this.’  You don’t have to have this completely Zen,” Shefferman said. “Just notice that your mind wandered and come back.

“Notice, non-judgmentally, that your mind wandered. That’s what our minds do. That’s what the human brain does. We have millions of thoughts a day. So, the idea isn’t at all to rid yourself of those thoughts. The goal is just to be aware of what’s happening and to come back and breathe.”

How does mindfulness help with pain?

“For people living with pain, mindfulness can help change the way you perceive the pain. The part of the brain that is involved in pain doesn’t actually change. The amount of pain doesn’t change,” Shefferman said. “But the parts of the brain involved in the perception of pain and the part of your brain that says, ‘Oh, this sucks, I hate this,’ becomes less active. So, yes, you might have the pain but you’re not as stressed out by it. You’re not as upset by it.

How can mindfulness help with anxiety?

“I often say that ‘anxiety lives in the future.’ We worry about ‘what if this happens? What if that happens? Or anxiety can live in the past, where you’re ruminating, saying, ‘Why did I say that? What was I thinking?’

“Working on being in this moment and taking a breath can calm the nervous system down. You can recognize when your mind is spiraling out of control and can come back to the present moment,” Shefferman said.

Does mindfulness work in conjunction with spirituality?

“Absolutely. Originally, mindfulness was a spiritual practice, a Buddhist spiritual practice. It has become much more secular now and has been brought into mainstream Western society and into Western medicine. But, definitely, you can use mindfulness in conjunction with prayer.”

Lead us through a simple mindfulness exercise.

“Find a comfortable position in a chair. Plant your feet on the floor. If you’d like, you can close your eyes. If you prefer to keep them open, that works, too. Just kind of pick a spot on the floor in front of you to focus your gaze.

“The first minute of this practice is just awareness. So, bringing your full awareness into the present moment, notice your body in space, your connection between your feet and the floor, your body with the chair.

“Notice any thoughts in your mind. Notice any emotions that you can tap into and where you can feel those emotions within the body. Just ask yourself the question, “What am I noticing right now?” and make room for whatever the answer to that question is, even if it is unwanted and unpleasant. It is here whether we like it or not. So we may as well try to make some space for it.

“Then the second minute of this practice is called gathering. So gathering your full attention around the breath, follow your ‘in’ breath all the way in and your ‘out’ breath all the way out. Notice where in your body you can feel your breath most vividly and rest it there, whether that’s in your nose or your chest or your belly. There is no right or wrong way to do this. We’re just noticing. Feeling each in-breath and each out-breath.

“The third minute is expansion. Expanding your awareness beyond the breath, once again take in any thoughts that you’re having, any emotions, any physical sensations in the body as well as your breath. So, asking yourself the question. What am I noticing right here, right now? Mind and body and ‘in’ breath and ‘out’ breath.

“And, whenever, you’re ready, you can open your eyes and bring your attention back out into the room around you.”

What are the physical effects of that exercise?

“Most likely, your blood pressure and heart rate probably came down.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.