What is mindfulness?
Everyone has heard that mindfulness benefits our physical and mental health and well-being. But what effect does it have on our brain in terms of neuroscience?
In short, Mindfulness means being present without judgement. To be moment-to-moment in gentle awareness of our thoughts, feelings and environment. It involves being aware of the mind and body in real-time instead of getting stuck in unconscious habitual thinking, assumptions, and maladaptive behaviours. Mindfulness can be described as being aware of our awareness – without judgement.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has proven successful in decreasing depression, chronic pain and addiction. It is widely used as a powerful preventative. Many health practices corporate wellbeing in education settings and athletic performance. Research shows that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) reduced depression relapse by 43%. Further, it enhanced people’s ability to feel rewarded and enjoy positive emotions.
Amygdala – the stress region
The amygdala is the region of the brain responsible for processing memories and monitoring and detecting danger. It activates our ‘fight, flight, freeze’ stress reflex, which originated from primal survival mechanisms. When stimulated, the amygdala produces stress hormones and chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline. In high amounts, these can be damaging to other organs and can cause diseases. It results in you being “on edge” all the time and unable to relax.
Cortex – the happiness region
On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex region of the brain is where our higher-order thinking happens. This part of the brain handles complex thought, decision making, attention and concentration. This is also where mindfulness occurs in the brain. Increased stimulations in the prefrontal cortex release chemicals and hormones. These are creating happiness and well-being. Some of the hormones are dopamine, for pleasure, serotonin for calm, oxytocin for love and endorphins for exhilaration.
According to researchers at the Mindsight Institute, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for the following essential functions of wellbeing:
- Bodily Regulation: basic bodily functions, like heart rate, breathing, and digestion.
- Attuned Communication: required to develop secure attachments, and to feel connected.
- Emotional Balance: aroused enough for life to have meaning and passion, but not so aroused that you feel out of control or overwhelmed.
- Response Flexibility: consciously responding to life’s happenings rather than knee-jerk reacting. This is an integral part of social and emotional intelligence.
- Fear Modulation: direct connections with the limbic areas can inhibit and modulate the activity of your fear/anxiety/panic-inducing amygdala.
- Empathy: the ability to attune to the other person’s state of mind emotionally and “being able to see” from another person’s point of view.
- Insight: the ability to perceive and know your own mind; it’s your brain connecting all the dots.
- Moral Awareness: moving beyond individually focused, survival needs to a vision of a larger, interconnected whole.
- Intuition: access to information from other interior parts of your body (e.g. having a ‘gut feeling’) to produce intuitive intelligence.
Mindfulness for wellbeing
Neuroscience research has found that as little as eight weeks of mindfulness practice can significantly rise well-being. It shrinks the amygdala, decreases stress-response activity, and permanently increases prefrontal connectivity. In short, the more mindfulness, the better the mood and emotional regulation.
It was once thought that the brain’s formation stopped at around 5 or 6 years old. However, now we know that through neuroplasticity, the brain can rewire itself at any time throughout our lives. Regions of the brain that are used more regularly are strengthened through more blood flow, oxygen and nutrients. For example, practising relaxation, mindfulness and healthy coping strategies increase resiliency and wellbeing. Conversely, constantly worrying, ruminating, and being stressed will strengthen those neurological pathways within the brain.
How to practice mindfulness
You can practice “bad” habits, or you can choose to practice “good” habits. These will positively rewire your brain through adaptive psychological functioning. Mindfulness is a key to habit change because it brings awareness to behaviours and activities that have become automatic and unconscious.
Sitting every day for as little as 5-30 minutes can make an enormous difference in how you approach life and how you interact with others. Mindfulness increases your ability to empathise and enhances your compassion. Additionally, it strengthens your ability to ‘respond’ rather than ‘react’ to life’s challenges. Becoming more mindful allows you to disconnect from primal survival patterns and develop a calm sense of centredness. In the same way, it enables smarter choices that positively impact our lives, our health and our world. There are many free apps and websites available to help you establish a daily mindfulness practice. To start, try the iOS “The Mindfulness App” if you have an iPhone. Otherwise, try the “Headspace App” available for iPhone and Android.
For more tips on how to improve your well-being read our other blog posts on this topic. Here.
By Michelle Pierre
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