Rewire Your Brain with Mindfulness
The practice of mindfulness is an increasingly common therapeutic technique used to improve both mental and physical health.
What exactly IS mindfulness and how does it work?
Mindfulness is defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Many people think of mindfulness as synonymous with meditation when, in fact, mindfulness meditation is just one way to practice. There are dozens of formal and informal ways to implement mindfulness in our daily life… But does it work?
THE SCIENCE BEHIND MINDFULNESS
Yes! Mindfulness changes your brain, literally.
Daily mindful meditation practice has been shown to produce measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. Studies have even documented changes in the brain’s grey matter over time.
What the heck is grey matter?
Great question! Your nervous system, which is like the body’s electrical wiring system, is comprised of the central nervous system (think BRAIN, including the spinal chord) and peripheral nervous system (think OUTSIDE the brain) that controls the activities of the body. White and grey matter are the major components of the central nervous system (BRAIN and spinal chord). While the white matter allows communication with functions you are mostly unaware of like temperature, blood pressure and heart rate, the grey matter is the darker tissue of the brain and spinal cord where the real processing is conducted. The structures within the grey matter process the signals that are involved in things like emotions, memory, speech, and muscle control. Grey matter makes up 40% of brain matter. That’s almost half your brain! It’s kind of a big deal… Still with me?
Where is this grey matter in the brain and how exactly does this affect us? Let’s break it down, shall we?
Your Pre-Frontal Cortex on Mindfulness
Key Functions: Planning, Problem Solving, Decision Making, Productivity
Studies have found increased grey matter density in the prefrontal lobe in mindful brains, an area primarily responsible for executive functioning such as planning, problem solving, and emotion regulation. This is especially promising for those struggling with mental health issues, specifically with affective disorders. Mindfulness seems to help to control emotion by limiting compulsive negative thinking (common in those suffering from anxiety or depression) and increasing tolerance for negative affect and pain. Not only does mindfulness cultivate compassion for others, it cultivates compassion for ourselves creating a healthier mind set and a happier brain! Feeling down? Are you hard on yourself or others? Practice mindfulness!
Your Hippocampus on Mindfulness
Key Functions: Learning, Memory, Healthy Aging
Studies of mindful brains have also shown increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. In Alzheimer’s disease, the hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage. Mindfulness is a great preventive tool against memory loss and dementia, and definitely one to add to your graceful aging toolkit. Got a big exam coming up? Maybe take a break from all that cramming and do some mindful meditation!
Your Amygdala on Mindfulness
Key Functions: Attention, Concentration, Focus, Engagement
The amygdala is an almond sized structure in the brain, close to the hippocampus and home of the ‘fight or flight’ centre where we hide all our fearful anxious emotions. Studies have shown that, after mindfulness practice, not only does the amygdala shrink but the functional connections between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex are weakened creating less reactivity and letting your brain focus on more useful tasks like attention and concentration. Feeling the pressure? Stressed out? Don’t stay calm and carry on, stay calm and… practice mindfulness!
5 MORE MINDFULNESS BENEFITS FOR YOUR BRAIN & BODY
What CAN’T mindfulness do?! Here’s 5 more ways being mindful can help with brain health and beyond:
- Improve diabetes symptoms and helps lower blood sugar
- Reduce symptoms of chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, etc.
- Reduce risk of high blood-pressure
- Slow aging
- Improve symptoms of many mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and PTSD
3 MINDFUL WAYS TO REWIRE YOUR BRAIN
Are you intimidated by meditation? Think mindfulness sounds time consuming and a lot of work? It doesn’t have to be! Here are three simple ways to include a little mindfulness into your every day routine:
1. Just Breathe
By simply focusing your attention on your breathing, and without doing anything to change it, you can move in the direction of relaxation. Too much attention on upsetting thoughts may cause anxiety, guilt and unhappiness. Get in the habit of shifting your awareness to your breath whenever you find yourself dwelling on stressful situations.
2. Mindful Meals
Practicing mindfulness while eating can help increase immune functions. Chewing food more has even been shown to help release nutrients from food more and efficiently affect everything from absorption and digestion to gut signalling. Trouble overeating? Struggling with weight? Studies show mindful eating increases satiety, prevents overeating and keeps weight balanced. Take smaller bites, eat slowly and focus on attributes of foods like colour, taste and smell.
3. Walking Meditation
Evidence suggests that mindfulness increases the more you practice. So even if you get outside for a peaceful walk for 10 minutes a day that could do the trick! Buddhist walking meditation has been shown to be effective in reducing depression and stress. Walking meditation involves paying deliberate attention to something you would normally do automatically, such as your breath coming in and out of your body; the movement of your feet and legs, or their contact with the ground or floor; your head balanced on your neck and shoulders; sounds around you; or whatever your eyes take in as they focus on the world in front of you. Don’t enjoy walking meditation? You can bring the same degree of awareness to almost any activity from running to brushing your teeth. Choose one daily activity to focus on and give it a whirl!
- Mrazek, M.D., Franklin, M.S., Phillips, D.T., Baird, B., & Schooler, J.W. (2013). Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological Science, 24(5):776-781.
- Rosenkranz, M.A., Davidson, R.J., Maccoon, D.G., Sheridan, J.F., Kalin, N.H., & Lutz, A. (2013). A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 27(1):174-184.
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- Desbordes, G., Negi, L.T., Pace, T.W., Wallace, B.A., Raison, C.L., & Schwartz, E.L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6:292.
- Prakhinkit, S., Suppapitiporn, S., Tanaka, H., & Suksom, D. (2014). 28. Effects of Buddhism walking meditation on depression, functional fitness, and endothelium-dependent vasodilation in depressed elderly. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(5):411-416.