Mindfulness: Conditioning for the stressed-out brain.

In recent years there has been increasing discussion revolving mindfulness. Current google search results for ‘mindfulness’ total in the millions. Across various disciplines: health care, medicine, business, neuroscience, organizational psychology, law and more, the positive effects of mindfulness have been researched and documented, which further boosts its popularity. When science + medicine support and lead something, people (and other industries) follow along. It also helps that gurus, celebrities, business brands, and yes, even Oprah have also been vocal in praising mindfulness and meditation.

So what exactly is mindfulness?
Biologist Jon Kabat Zinn (lets call him JKZ) defines mindfulness as,

“paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non judgmentally”

Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist traditions and JKZ helped popularize it in the West through his research on mindfulness and chronic pain patients at UMass medical center in the late 70’s. Although the mindfulness that is known to mainstream has tenets in Buddhism and Eastern contemplative philosophy, other religions also have some sort of prayer or meditative practice that allows its practitioners to cope with day-to-day stressors or at least helps to manage them, much like mindfulness.

You can also think of mindfulness as being intently “engaged” to the present through your senses, and without prescribing labels to experiences such as “good” or ‘bad” (judgement). The practice of mindfulness is much like exercise training or conditioning for our brain so that we can remember to return to this ‘state of awake/alert’ throughout our experiences.

Ever feel like you are running on auto-pilot? As if you’re emotions take over reason? Ever feel like you don’t really taste your food, you just eat and temporarily fill up? Have you ever arrived to a destination in your car without really noticing your surroundings because you are so caught up in your thoughts or stories in your mind (or phone)? Mindfulness helps us cultivate a focused attention which in turn allows “space” between our thoughts and actions. In this “space” we are able to choose our behaviors more intently, feel more calm, and ultimately live more joyfully in the present moment.

How does Mindfulness help

The success JKZ had on demonstrating the positive effects of mindfulness on chronic pain patients at a hospital eventually led to the development of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a highly recognized evidenced based 8-week educational program with practices that can help with stress, anxiety, depression and pain. Since the development of MBSR, other mindfulness based applications have been created, tailored to help with other issues such as work productivity, enhance focus, money management, improve eating habits and lots more.

Positive effects of mindfulness could be traced to its science proven neurological changes on brain structure and functions. Neuroscience has demonstrated how a daily 20 minute meditation practice can actually alter critical brain structures through a process called ‘neuroplasticity’. The research also shows how not only do brain structures change but neuron circuits, overtime, are “re-wired”. The reward circuit in our brain (which highly influences addiction) and the pain circuits —all part of the limbic system, are some areas of the brain that science has demonstrated to be altered via regular mindfulness practices.

Below is just some ways in which a regular mindfulness practice helps our brain:

Prefrontal-cortex: This is part of the ‘higher order brain functioning’ (part of what makes our brains distinct from animals) which is associated with fear, emotions, awareness, concentration and decision making. Grey matter in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain thickens with regular mindfulness process. As we age, this part of our brain thins, negatively affecting cognitive function. Higher functioning in this part of the brain will improve planning, problem solving and emotional regulation and emotional intelligence— all of which help our performance at work and within personal relationships.

Amygdala: Primal region of our brain responsible for our fight/flight stress response (survival instincts), mood and anxious emotions -and part of our limbic system. Mindfulness decreases volume of grey matter in this brain region. The amygdala is the brain structure responsible for panic and anxiety so restoring balance to the amygdala is essential so we can stay safe without overreacting to minor stressors.

Hippocampus: This structure is also part of the limbic system, and this region rules learning and memory. Stress wears out the hippocampus. A regular mindfulness practice can assist in the retention of information and memory recall, benefiting students (and we’re all life long students anyway right? ;)). Traumatic experiences can significantly stress this part of the brain which is why children with history of trauma may have more difficulty at school (poor concentration, learning issues).

Mindfulness can help reduce the perception of pain by half, not by blocking the experience of pain but disengaging the thought process that makes it painful –ex. telling yourself (or others) how painful something is will exacerbate the pain experience.

Long time, regular practitioners of mindfulness demonstrate a difference in ‘active genes’ which are in charge of helping our body fight diseases and disorders, decreasing susceptibility to illness and boosting immune system function.

Mindfulness enhances our brain’s ability to cope with short term and long term stressful situations.

Its no wonder why meditation and mindfulness are all the buzz as a complementary to treatment of chronic illness, addictions, eating disorders, trauma recovery etc.

Ways to practice Mindfulness

The most effective way to practice mindfulness is through meditation, everyday, for 20-30 minutes -as per traditional MBSR training for optimal brain health. However, its completely normal and common that committing to sitting still for meditation is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of a mindfulness practice. Even then, a 5 minute seated meditation -before sleep, in the morning, at lunch break etc. can go a long way. The more stress-prone a brain is, the more uncomfortable it may be at the beginning of practice and that is okay. Mindfulness can be practiced other ways, for example going out for a mindful walk (remembering to engage all your senses), yoga, mindful eating, cooking, coloring, brushing your teeth–you get the point. You can really ‘practice’ at any time you remember… and with the more practice, the easier to remember.

Start here, now.

Mindfulness can be a simple as just focusing on your breath. To focus on your breath is an opportunity to acknowledge that you are are alive and breathing. Without forced effort, being still enough to just notice the natural rise and fall of your chest, and the shrinking and expanding of your belly as you breathe IS mindfulness. Engage some gratitude thoughts and you have a nice grounding exercise that might provide a soothing feeling, and a switch in perspective, something we could all use nowadays.

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