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North Hills Monthly

Mindfulness Credited with Improving Emotional Health

Jan 30, 2017 07:42PM ● By Jennifer Monahan

Mindfulness is trending in a big way. The topic is everywhere from The Today Show to NPR. Mindfulness apps such as Headspace abound and books on the topic are among’s best sellers.

While many definitions exist, Jon Kabat-Zinn—widely considered the father of modern-day mindfulness—explains mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally. Kabat-Zinn is professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts and created Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979. 

Jane Rahenkamp, a life coach who teaches both mindfulness and meditation, said her favorite definition comes from writer Anne Lamott, who described mindfulness as “being where your feet are.” Whatever delineation practitioners prefer, Rahenkamp said the current enthusiasm for mindfulness has two main causes. 

“With technology, we can study the brain as never before,” she explained, adding that scientists have found that mindfulness actually changes how the brain works. Studies show that its physical and mental health benefits are significant, and people are paying attention to those findings.

The second reason, Rahenkamp said, is that “life is crazy.” With the constant flow of information, influence of social media and widespread use of cell phones, it is easier than ever to be distracted. Rahenkamp believes it is more important than ever to learn to be present in the moment and tune out distractions.

Life coach Sandy Ihlenfeld of the Rose E. Schneider Family YMCA, offered a third reason. 

“Mindfulness is trending because it’s powerful,” she said. “People are more productive employees, better spouses. Relationships go better because people feel valued when you focus on them.”

Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, but western psychology’s version tends toward the secular. Rahenkamp explained that mindfulness and meditation are not the same thing but are two sides of the same coin. While mindfulness—being fully present in the moment—can take just a second or two, meditation happens over a longer time frame where the person attempts not to engage with the random thoughts that usually make a mind race.

Some kinds of prayer are similar to meditation, Rahenkamp said. In the Roman Catholic faith, both centering prayer and praying the rosary contain elements of meditation and result in the same kinds of health benefits for practitioners. Both meditation and prayer can be effective tools to practice mindfulness.

The physical benefits are impressive. Ihlenfeld explained that mindfulness reduces stress, which in turn reduces the risk for heart disease; it can also help with insomnia and improve the quality of sleep. The practice helps people reach rapid eye movement (REM) sleep faster, and sufficient REM sleep has a direct correlation to eating fewer calories. Mindfulness can also help boost the immune system.

Improved emotional health and increased ability to pay attention also result from practicing mindfulness. Rahenkamp explained that the parts of the brain that support learning, memory and regulation of emotion get stronger. Some school districts are utilizing mindfulness with elementary students, and the practice is often used to assist people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rahenkamp became interested in mindfulness because of her role as a life coach, and practices mindfulness herself in addition to using it with her clients. She has advanced degrees in leadership and business ethics, has worked as a professional and executive coach for Penn State University and is on the faculty at Duquesne University.

Ihlenfeld has a degree in exercise science as well a master’s degree in disease prevention and health promotion. She currently trains other fitness instructors and personal trainers, and said that certification for these fields now includes training in mindfulness. She recommends yoga as a way for people interested in finding out more about mindfulness to get started.

Rahenkamp also suggested checking out mindfulness websites, reading books by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Ellen Langer and trying out a few mindfulness or meditation apps.

“Mindfulness makes you more peaceful and happier,” said Ihlenfeld. And who doesn’t need a little more peace and happiness in their lives?

For more information, contact Rahenkamp at or Ihlenfeld at