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How Mindfulness Meditation Changes The Brain

By July 20, 2016Blog
mindfulness and the brain

It would appear that all those spiritual people you may have looked at with suspicion or arrogance may have been much wiser than we thought all along.  It’s easy for people to mock that which they don’t understand but there are now tangible, science-backed reasons for the peaceful presence of those “hippy types” that meditate frequently!

If like many, you’re not even sure what meditation is, here is a good definition I found on The Buddhist Centre’s website:

“Meditation is a means of transforming the mind. Buddhist meditation practices are techniques that encourage and develop concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and a calm seeing of the true nature of things…With regular work and patience these nourishing, focused states of mind can deepen into profoundly peaceful and energised states of mind. Such experiences can have a transformative effect and can lead to a new understanding of life.”

I love the reference to “concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and a calm seeing of the true nature of things” for this is something many people lack when they are experiencing stress and anxiety in this fast-paced, information-overloaded world we traverse daily.  Well, according to research published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging by Hölzel at al. (2011), meditation actually, physically changes the brain in ways that will help us to achieve the above, on a general basis, even when we’re not meditating.

We’ve known for some time that the brain wires and rewires itself throughout our lifetime based on the things that we habitually think, do and feel.  What this research demonstrated was that when meditation novices were asked to use one of the most widely used mindfulness training programmes, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), for eight weeks, physical changes took place within the brain.

Participants spent, on average, 27 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises.  Whilst self-reporting in questionnaires indicated significant improvements compared with their answers given prior to beginning, their brains also showed significant changes.

The researchers found increases in grey matter within the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the meditiation group compared with the control group.  The authors write, “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in grey matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”  Moreover, in a previous study by Hölzel et al., 2009, the researchers also noted a correlation between self-reports of reduction in stress and decreased grey matter in the amygdale, the brain regions known to play an important role in stress and anxiety.  Wow!  That’s a lot of brain change as a result of how it’s trained!

Here are three important reflections:

  • If we struggle to regulate our emotions about matters big and small, we make life very stressful and difficult for ourselves (and our loved ones).
  • Our perception of events dictates our actions and thus the outcomes we get. If we struggle to learn from life challenges, because the brain structures associated with it are not working at optimum level because we have eroded them over time with lots of negative thinking, then we will keep hitting the same roadblocks time and time again which in turn feed our sense of self-worth and levels of happiness.
  • Over time, our resilience to life’s stresses will become lowered because such stresses, if not handled well, reinforce our thinking that we can’t cope resulting in us feeling increasingly overwhelmed by life, over time.

What each of us is essentially doing is either wiring/training our brain to frequently be in “panic mode” or frequently be in “calm mode”.  The former can happen because we have repeatedly taught our brain to perceive even everyday matters as “threatening events” and so the brain and body prepares us for this by inducing the fight-or-flight response, frequently.  This is very damaging for our mental and physical health and wellbeing.  The latter can happen because, like the participants in the study who practised mindfulness meditation daily for eight weeks, we have repeatedly taught our brain to perceive most life challenges as non-stressful events.

How are you wiring your brain…and are you doing it mindfully 😉 ?

So are you indulging a daily habit of being in “panic mode” even if you think it is justified?  Do you notice that you seem to be a lot more stressed and anxious about things than most people you know that have a similar lifestyle?   Do you feel like your resilience to stressful or “stressful” events is declining?  As noted by the researchers, by practising meditation, i.e. by practising being calm, mentally quiet and non-judgemental for about half an hour a day, you could increase the grey matter in your brain in the areas associated with learning, memory, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking and decrease the grey matter in your brain in the areas associated with the stress response.

What difference would it make to your life if you felt mostly calm, clear, focused and positive?  What goals might you achieve as a result?  Which current problems you’re facing would you love to resolve?  Do you think you would resolve these problems quickly and easily by being calmer, clearer, more focused and more emotionally positive?  What difference would it make to your wellbeing and day to day existence if you were mostly calm rather than mostly stressed or anxious?  What difference would it make to your self-esteem if you experienced yourself, daily, as someone who was calm, optimistic and a great problem-solver?

Action Steps: 

1) Write down a list of all the things you want to achieve that you have been struggling to achieve for a while.

2) Be specific in what you want to achieve and write a specific date down for achieving each one by.

3) Practise mindfulness meditation each day.  (Start with 5-10 minutes if easier and work up to 30 minutes a day.)

4) Note how your wellbeing, emotions and clarity change by rating your stress levels before and four weeks after and eight weeks after starting daily meditation.

  • Using a scale of 1-10, if 1 is so stressed it is consuming me and exhausting me, write down how calm you feel, on the whole, day to day.
  • Using a scale of 1-10, if 1 is I am massively struggling to handle life’s stresses, write down how resilient you feel, on the whole, day to day.
  • Using a scale of 1-10, if 1 is I feel massively confused and foggy most of the time, write down how clear you feel, on the whole, day to day.

5) Every week, write a self-report of how things are improving in terms of (a) achieving your written goals and (b) how you feel day-to-day, making a note of the small changes as well as the big.  You may find it takes a few weeks for you to experience noticeable positive changes.

 

References:

Hölzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Evans, K.C., Hoge, E.A., Dusek, J.A., Morgan, L., Pitman, R.K. & Lazar, S.W., (2009). Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5 (1), 11–17.

Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M.., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (1), 36-43.

 

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