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Can Mindfulness Practices Improve Physical Health?

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Can Mindfulness Practices Improve Physical Health?

May 18, 2021

Mindfulness practices can help with stress, depression, and anxiety—but research has shown that they can also help with physical conditions. Trinh Mai with University of Utah Health's Resiliency Center explores the treatment of chronic stress through mindfulness practices and how it can help manage health conditions like chronic pain, blood pressure, and heart disease.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: I think many of us have already heard or know that mindfulness can help with stress and depression and anxiety, but did you know mindfulness can also help with a lot of physical conditions as well, such as pain management, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, AIDS, cancer? It can help improve your sleep, stomach issues, and even eating disorders.

Trinh Mai is a mindfulness educator at The Resiliency Center at University of Utah Health. And mindfulness can help all these physical ailments as well, huh?

Trinh: Yeah. Isn't that wild?

Interviewer: It is wild. Tell me more about that. I mean, how does that work exactly?

Trinh: What all of those conditions share in common is that chronic stress can contribute to all of those conditions — hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, digestive conditions. Often stress is at the root of it, and stress is also the outcome of a lot of health conditions. So if there's a practice like mindfulness that can help you to better manage stress, then it's going to help you to better manage those symptoms.

Interviewer: This isn't something right now that I think a lot of physicians necessarily do. I bet you I could go to my doctor and say, "Hey, tell me about mindfulness and how that could manage my diabetes." You might get a blank stare. So are more and more physicians kind of adopting it, or how is this manifesting itself in traditional healthcare?

Trinh: Actually, how I came to mindfulness was my neurologist. I don't just teach this, I practice it and I'm a believer because I went to my neurologist about 10 years ago and said, you know, "I'm having all these neurological issues, pain, numbness." And we did a workup, and luckily I didn't meet any particular diagnoses, but she said, you know, stress often contributes to pain.

So she actually recommended that I take mindfulness-based stress reduction, and that's a course that I currently teach now so I feel really lucky. But that course changed a lot for me. It helped me to become more aware of what triggered my pain, and then it helped me to be aware of, you know, how I react to my pain can actually reduce it or exacerbate it. Sometimes the reactions actually make things a lot worse than the initial problem.

And then I, through the practice, actually became more aware and then I hopefully have been able to reduce my pain in other aspects. Hopefully, I'm less of a pain as a parent and as a partner. But yeah, it's awareness. That's what mindfulness is. And when you're aware, then you have more choices of what course to take.

Interviewer: I know a lot of people personally, and probably even me a few years back, if a physician in medicine would have told me what your neurologist told you, I'd be like, "Oh, they just can't figure out what it is. This is ridiculous." I can almost hear somebody going home and go, "Yeah, they told me I need to be more mindful. How's that going to help? Give me a pill, give me a diagnosis, tell me what's wrong."

And I think a lot of us have a hard time believing that stress can cause some of these other health conditions. So that story was great because I think it just really illustrated, you know, it did, it made a difference in your life and it can make a difference for a lot of people.

So let's get to the question now. So somebody is listening to this podcast, maybe they're suffering from one of the things we mentioned, maybe it's something else. How do they do it? Let's give somebody a first primer and then we'll give some resources.

Trinh: Yeah. So let me start with, first of all, I think that a lot of people that I've taught they'll tell me, "Oh, yeah, it's not for me because my mind races and I just can't make it stop," or "I can't sit still, that makes me too nervous." Well, you know what? I totally get that. I come from generations of people, particularly women, that cannot sit still. Like my mom, she's 70 something, she's retired, but she does not sit still. So I totally get that.

And it's like anything, the more we do, the stronger our muscles are to be able to do it, and the better we get. The other thing I think it's important to know is that you don't have to make your mind stop. So I'm going to just repeat that. You do not have to make your mind stop. We can't necessarily control that, but what we do have control over is if we pay attention to it or not, and we can bring attention to our bodies.

So for example, if I were to ask you now, can you bring attention to your feet on the ground and feel the surfaces of the ground? And if you can do that, you're practicing mindfulness.

Interviewer: That's it?

Trinh: Yes. And, you know, your mind's going to wander off to, "Oh, well, I got better things to think about." And that's cool. But when you notice that, you can bring it back.

So now I'd like to invite you to bring your attention to your breath and maybe see if you can pay attention to three breaths, the inhale, the exhale, feeling the air enter the nostrils, and opening up your body. Exhaling completely, feeling the body contract.

The mind wanders off. You notice. That means you're aware and you bring it back to your breath. And then at the end of the next exhale, maybe just check in and notice how you feel. See if there's any shifts.

Interviewer: I feel more relaxed already, and we did that for like, what, 18 seconds. That was amazing.

Trinh: Thanks for practicing along, Scot.

Interviewer: That was fantastic. So it doesn't seem like it's hard. You just kind of have to be paying attention. I'd imagine there's a lot of resources that you can get to it. There's apps I hear advertised or probably YouTube videos. Is there any place, in particular, you'd like to go for somebody who just wants to start?

Trinh: So, you know, I'm biased. I work for Wellness and Integrative Health here at the University of Utah, so I am going to invite you there first. You might want to check out the University of Utah Wellness and Integrative Health YouTube channel, and it's under Be Well Utah. So that's the series that you can check out.

And then, you know, taking courses, trying a class is a lovely way to get support and structure and a community to start a habit. So we have two courses. We actually have three. We have Everyday Mindfulness, which is an introductory course, and it's four weeks. And then we have the gold standard, which is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. And that's the one that John Kabat-Zinn started and has decades of research behind it. And that one is nine weeks.

And then I just started a self-compassion course during lunch, and that's only an hour long for four weeks. So a few options for you to just, you know, try it out and see what it's like for you.