How Mindfulness Changes Your Brain

You may think of mindfulness as one of those far-out-there trends, but it’s been around since antiquity for good reason. Science has proven, beyond any doubt, that a steady practice of mindfulness induces real beneficial changes in the brain.

Studies have shown mindfulness to significantly improve a variety of conditions including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mindfulness has also proven successful in preventing relapse of chronic depression and substance abuse.

What Exactly Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a way of thinking.

At the most basic level, it’s simply being aware of what’s happening as it’s happening. Being mindful means that you become aware of the workings of your mind, at that moment. When practicing mindfulness, you deliberately direct your awareness back into the now and focus your attention there.

By following this thought pattern repeatedly, over time, your brain actually physically changes. Through a process called neuroplasticity, the brain forms new connections and default neuronal pathways to support this kind of thinking, even when not consciously practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a mental health tool, and it’s not necessarily religious or spiritual, but it can be. In The Meaning Of Mindfulness, I cover the five basic factors that tend to be included in all mindfulness philosophies:

  • Nonreactivity to inner experience (e.g., perceiving feelings and emotions without having to react to them);
  • observing/noticing/attending to sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings (e.g., remaining present with sensations and feelings even when they are unpleasant or painful);
  • acting with awareness/not on automatic pilot, concentration/nondistraction (e.g., breaking or spilling things because of carelessness, not paying attention, or thinking of something else);
  • describing/labeling with words (e.g., easily putting beliefs, opinions, and expectations into words);
  • nonjudgmental of experience (e.g., criticizing oneself for having irrational or appropriate emotions).

How Mindfulness Changes Your Brain

Here’s what some of the experts in the brain health arena had to say about how mindfulness changes your brain for the better:

In Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, Elisha Goldstein PhD writes:

The practice of mindfulness can train our brains to have a new default. Instead of automatically falling into the stream of past or future rumination that ignites the depression loop, mindfulness draws our attention to the present moment. As we practice mindfulness, we actually start wiring neurons that balance the brain in a way that is naturally an antidepressant.  

Alex Korb PhD explains in his book The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time:

Nonjudgmental awareness is a form of mindfulness that simply means noticing without reacting emotionally, even when things don’t turn out as you expected. Awareness does not require emotion, because awareness and emotion are mediated by different brain regions. Noticing a mistake might automatically trigger the emotional amygdala, but becoming aware of your own reaction activates the prefrontal cortex, which calms the amygdala.

Daniel J. Siegel M.D. tells us in The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being:

Studies have shown that specific applications of mindful awareness improve the ability to regulate emotion, to combat emotional dysfunction, to improve patterns of thinking, and to reduce negative mindsets. Research on some dimension of mindful awareness practices reveals that they greatly enhance the body’s functioning: Healing, immune response, stress reactivity, and a general sense of physical well-being are improved with mindfulness.

In Joy on Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within, Chade-Meng Tan says:

More convincingly, to me, are the participants in my Search Inside Yourself class. The vast majority of those participants did little or no meditation before the class, but after just a few days or weeks of meditation, many of them reported meaningful increases in happiness. A 2003 study yields a similar finding, that just eight weeks of mindfulness training  is enough to cause significant changes in the brain associated with increased happiness.  

In Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, Rick Hanson PhD writes:

Similarly, people who routinely practice mindfulness meditation develop thicker layers of neurons in the insula — a region that activates when you tune into your body and feelings — and in parts of the prefrontal cortex (in the front of your brain) that control attention. The details are complex, but the key point is simple: how you use your mind changes your brain — for better or worse.

Ways To Work More Mindfulness Into Your Life

Mindfulness isn’t necessarily limited to meditation sessions in which you sit cross-legged on a cushion. Although, I do have a daily meditation practice and highly recommend it. It’s the closest thing to a happy pill I’ve found.

Hobbies and activities that you enjoy can be forms of meditation. When you become so engrossed in an activity, such a gardening, painting, yoga, running, being in nature, that you lose track of time and aren’t thinking about your to-do list, you’re doing light meditation. Getting lost in a hobby is an excellent way to be present and mindful. Or you can always begin a formal meditation practice.

If you don’t want to meditate or find it difficult, you can benefit by working mindfulness into your daily life. You don’t have to make drastic changes in order to be more mindful, you can begin in small ways. I offer the following suggestions for building more mindfulness into your day in my book, Beat Depression And Anxiety By Changing Your Brain: With Simple Practices That Will  Improve Your Life :

  1. Chew your food.

Sit down at a table and enjoy your meal. Slow down and be aware of sensations while you eat; turn off all gadgets and think consciously about what you’re eating, how it got to your plate, and how it nourishes your body. Not only will this reduce the indigestion you might get from wolfing down a plate that you barely tasted, but it will also allow you to actually appreciate your meal mindfully.

  1. Breathe deeply on purpose.

Almost all of us are guilty of shallow breathing, taking short rapid breaths that only expand the upper chest rather than engaging our diaphragms for deep belly breaths. Slowing down and becoming conscious of your breath not only lowers the heart rate, improves posture, and increases energy, but it calms your nervous system. Your breath is always with you and is a simple way of being present and mindful anywhere.

  1. Notice the good.

No matter what’s going on in your life, there’s always good to be found, even if it’s something as small as turning the faucet and water coming out, the sun shining, or a bloom on your orchid plant. There was good in your past, there’s good in the present, and there will be good in your future. You have to make a point to notice it.

  1. Don’t be afraid to say no.

Check in with yourself and say what you really mean making your happiness a priority. In every situation, there’s always a caring way to respond considering what’s being asked of you while factoring in your own needs and happiness. Stay aware when making decisions and conscious of the reasons behind those decisions – that’s what being mindful is all about. Don’t go through life operating from habit or avoidance. Take responsibility for your choices and be present while making them.

  1. Get a hobby.

Everybody already practices mindfulness sometimes, even if they don’t know it. When you become so engrossed in an activity that you lose track of time and aren’t thinking about your bills or to-do list, you are “in-the-moment.” An engrossing hobby can focus your attention on the task at hand and bring a sense of calm. This can happen while gardening, in nature, writing, cooking, running, or whatever does it for you.

After a while, being mindful becomes a way of life. It drastically changed my life and helped me recover from depression and a brain injury. It can change your life for the better too.

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  1. Sandra Pawula Reply

    It’s very inspiring to see the benefits of mindfulness on the brain and our emotions. Thank you, Debbie. I agree that hobbies and activities can be excellent objects for mindfulness and awareness as long as we don’t get lost in them. When we get lost in an activity, we cease to be aware. I especially like “notice the good” on your list. That’s a fantastic practice.

    • I think we can get lost in a activities and hobbies. We have to stay mindful in these as well. WOW. It can be hard to stay present when you have ran all your life. It can be frightening when you are used to avoiding, denying and evading all problems, pain and discomfort. Scarey stuff.

      • Good point, Alice. You are absolutely right. Hobbies can be a way of distracting ourselves or they too can be an opportunity to be mindful. Anything in life can, can really. 🙂

  2. Thanks for putting the research together to show how mindfulness can work to change the brain. I like that you said mindfulness is training our minds.

  3. It’s always fascinating to hear what science has to say about what for me are spiritual practices. I know experientially that wellbeing goes hand in hand with mindfulness and as always Debbie you bring the gift of additional information.

    Mindfully eating seems to be a really important aspect of our wellbeing and yet often takes a back seat to other practices, so I’m glad you included it. Another fascinating read. A big thanks as always.

    • I always make my kids thank the animal they are eating for its life. Too often, we make no meaningful connection of what we eat with where it came from. (They don’t particularly like it when I do this!)

  4. Thanks for this reminder, Debbie.

    Meditation has helped me become substantially calmer and mindful of my surroundings (people and nature). As a Buddhist monk had said, you can meditate for a few minutes anywhere. When the monkey brains starts running around, give it the task to focus on breathing, he had said. Having a hobby and saying “no” without feeling guilty further enhance our sense of self…

    Gonna share this one…

    • Thanks for your comments and for sharing, Vishal. Meditation has changed my life by helping my control my mind and emotions rather than them controlling me. Life gets very messy when they are running the show!

  5. I like the get a hobby- you had me reflecting – that yes I am practising mindfulness when I cook, when i stitch etc xx

  6. Wonderful information here, Debbie on mindfulness. Thank you for sharing that overall, medication and/or mindfulness makes you happier. I so agree. I find I am more calm and relaxed if I practice mindfulness. It is a wonderful tool for anyone, but especially those that are experiencing challenges to help turn their life around. Thanks!

  7. “Awareness and emotion are mediated by different brain regions.”

    The brain doesn’t actually mediate awareness. It mediates attention, or specifically, where it (the brain) wants you to put it when we are in mechanical mode. Mindefulness allows us to place our attention where we want, to lesser or greater degrees, and to avoid old default patterns of fusing with this or that content and triggering another spiral into (fill in the blank).

  8. First, great discussion, Debbie. Second, knit picking terms is probably only germane to people interested in the “Philosophy of Mind” discussion, or people like me in the Zen tradition. But for anyone who’s interested: Awareness seems to be a phenomenon that underscores all consciousness, so it cannot be divided or parsed and directed this way or that. Modern neuroscience has done miraculous things in discovering how we process information and stimulus (“content”), and the processes involved. But WHY and how we are aware remains unknown. There are basically three components to mindfulness: the fact that we are aware (when conscious), attention (that we can “pay” to this or that), and focus, which which is holding a discrete bit of reality (say a thought or feeling) in sharp relief. Our conditioning and genetics will direct our attention to habitual targets. With mindfulness, we can become aware of those patterns and either hold an open focus, where nothing in particular get our attention, or direct attention elsewhere. A lot of this had to do with impulse control – but in a counterintuitive way. Rather than trying to control our inner lives, we learn not to act on impulse, which in not so much “doing’ anything but not-doing. Tricky stuff, for sure.

    • Thanks for explaining it, John. I’ll probably still use the terms interchangeably for general purposes because, like you said, most people ar not going to distinguish between the two. But, good to know! 🙂

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