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New study will have even hardcore skeptics embracing mindful meditation

I'm an Australian living in the UK who likes brunch and books. I'm kind of reserved until the conversation moves to punctuation, The Simpsons, or systematic injustice.

Mindful meditation might seem a little out there, but the benefits are very real

The concepts of mindfulness and meditation may seem super New Age-y and hippy-dippy to those who haven't embraced the practice, but a new study shows evidence that mindful meditation can have a seriously positive impact on your health — especially if you have high levels of stress.

If you're a skeptic of mediation, don't worry. You don't have to be able to bend yourself into a pretzel shape or abandon your loud, rational mind forever. It just takes a little bit of time every day to learn how to center yourself and reap the benefits (Psychology Today provides a good how-to here). And even better, this new study actually does provide cold, hard evidence that mindful meditation does amazing things for you.

More: I thought meditation was woo-woo, until it helped me get sober

In fact, the whole reason associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center Dr. Elizabeth Hoge and her team set out on their research was to quiet skeptics. In the study, which is now published in Psychiatry Research, anxious people who took a mindfulness course reacted to stress better and had a lower hormonal and inflammatory response than people who didn't practice mindfulness.

Even more benefits than alleviated stress

In addition the recent findings that meditation can help alleviate stress, a 2006 study based in Australia lauded the potential of mindfulness to help manage the symptoms of both mental and physical problems. Another 2016 study tentatively suggested that mindfulness can be a helpful strategy to promote the well-being and academic achievement of final-year high school students. Other studies have found that mindfulness techniques help reduce binge-eating and help people to reinterpret situations in order to regulate the emotional impacts.

Have we piqued your interest yet?

Of course, a bunch of studies don't necessarily make it easier for you to find the time or effort to actually meditate — particularly when it is very difficult to see the positive effects of such an exercise straight away.

In part, that’s the point. In mindful meditation, your focus is on the background noise of your existence, not necessarily on the value or meaning of it. Nonjudgment is central, and thus, when you start evaluating your experience, you’re no longer doing it.

More: I tried finding myself at a luxe meditation studio

This is a big problem for people who prefer to gauge benefits as they go. How do you know it’s working for you when you’re told you can’t judge it? The problem is compounded by the fact that mindfulness is not easy — especially for people who are constantly busy. Mindfulness might be stressful sometimes. It can also be deflating, tiring and otherwise unpleasant. But the unpleasantness is part of a process, just like the pain of forming a callous when you’re starting to learn guitar.

Getting started

There's no doubt about it. Starting a meditation practice is intimidating.

Routine helps. Find a good time in your day, set a phone reminder and consistently do it just as you would always brush your teeth before bed. It takes a while to form better habits, but once they're set, it becomes much easier.

While it's important to stick to the commitment of mindfulness, self-care shouldn't be a chore. There's a difference between a reluctance to practice each day and full-blown dreading. Meditative practice should not add to your stress levels, so putting it at a good time and doing it in a way you could at some point conceivably look forward to it is ideal.

If the idea of meditation doesn’t work for you for whatever reason, that’s OK. Meditation is not the only way to practice mindfulness. You can practice it by walking, playing a simple game or even eating. Coloring is likewise a popular option. There are also many different mindful meditation programs and apps you can choose from, so try a few and see what makes you feel most comfortable.

How to tell when it's working

Nobody suggests that it is advisable to be in a state of mindfulness at all times. Evaluation and reflection on past experiences — including the experience of mindfulness itself — is important. But in order to give the activity a chance, it is likewise important to suspend judgment and keep an open mind, at least for the time being. Your evaluation of mindfulness is best done after a few months of practice.

By practicing, then waiting, we can eliminate the cyclic trap of skeptical overthinking. The evidence base is good, so you try it. Your experience isn't great, so you stop and question the study's validity. Stop the wheel! Trust the peer review process until you've given yourself a good chance.

Here are some ways you can tell if it is working for you a few months down the road:

  • You find it easier to focus on tasks.
  • You feel less restless in situations you find boring, like waiting for a bad movie to end, waiting for your turn to speak in a conversation, taking time to get to a destination, etc.
  • When traveling to a familiar place (such as work, the grocery store or a relative’s house) you notice new things about your environment and you aren’t as likely to forget chunks of your journey.
  • When you have unpleasant thoughts or emotions, you feel less consumed by them. You have a greater awareness of how the thoughts will pass.
  • You generally have a better mood.

The profound benefits of mindfulness can be accessible to even the most skeptical as long as you are willing to suspend judgment for short periods of time to actually undertake the practice. Eventually, your need for evidence may be satiated by your own long-term experiences.

More: Becoming a transcendental meditation junkie rewired my brain

Before you go, check out our slideshow below.

Mindful meditation might seem a little out there, but the benefits are very real

Originally published January 2016. Updated January 2017.

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