Over recent decades, mindfulness has gone from an “out there” topic not taken seriously to become a mainstream scientifically-validated mental health practice. It’s now being utilized as a method of therapy, a tool to increase corporate well-being, and a way to improve everything from education and weight loss methodologies to athletic performance. Looking at the practice through the lens of neuroscience is turning out some extraordinarily robust data showing mindful awareness to be a powerful mental health tool that changes your brain for the better.
Mindfulness is one of those terms that you see just about everywhere these days, but what exactly does it mean? Here’s everything your brain needs to know.
Very simply, mindfulness is a way of thinking. It’s being aware and being aware of your awareness. It’s training your brain to pay attention and focus and notice what’s happening as it’s happening. It’s learning to direct your attention to your present experience, including your mind, body, and environment.
Mindfulness is both a state of mind and a quality that you develop through practice. Over time, it becomes a way of being and part of who you are. Repetitively and consistently thinking and behaving mindfully alters your brain’s form and function. You may think of mindfulness as a spiritual practice. While it can be, it is not associated with any specific religious orientation nor does it conflict with any. Read more
In your physical brain, mindfulness asks that you deliberately shift control of your thoughts and actions from your limbic system — the ancient, instinctual “reptilian” brain — to the conscious awareness of your frontal lobe. The frontal lobe of your brain is essentially your “humanness.” The very middle part of the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), is where complex mental processes take place. This is also where mindfulness happens. The PFC is highly integrated and literally one synapse away from the cortex, limbic area, and brain stem. That’s important because it allows the PFC to “talk to” and influence these brain regions. In other words, it can insert rational thinking and calm them down. Read more
Your brain is wired to be reactive, not mindful. Its priority is always your safety – not calm and happiness. When our ancestors were hunted for food, this was an evolutionary advantage that helped them survive. Today, this hair-trigger reactivity, called negativity bias, doesn’t help you much. In fact, it can leave you feeling anxious, agitated, stressed, worried, and depressed.
For health and happiness, you want your brain to rest in a responsive (mindful) mode most of the time. Thinking and living mindfully is a skill you can learn and develop. I consider myself a mindful person. Does that mean I never get upset or react? No. It means I try to override my habitual patterns of reacting and consciously choose my behavior and attitudes. I don’t always succeed, but I’m a lot calmer and less reactive than I used to be! Read more
The benefits of mindfulness for your brain ultimately come down to the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the capability of your brain to change its form and function in response to experience. Over time, consistently practicing mindful thinking resets your brain patterns and default mode network (DFM) because you are repetitively altering the way you use your brain. What it really comes down to is that you are changing which part of your brain is in control more of the time.
Mindfulness causes physical changes in your brain which benefit your mental health. Studies show the practice can 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 and protecting against cognitive decline.
When practicing mindfulness, brain changes can begin to happen almost immediately and become cumulative with time and practice. Of course, results are going to vary per person and depend on individual factors. Even taking this into consideration, it isn’t inaccurate to say that mindfulness can make lasting changes to the brain fairly quickly. A 2003 study found that just eight weeks of mindfulness training was enough to cause significant changes in the brain associated with increased happiness. Read more
Mindfulness has become the first-line treatment for many mental health disorders. Using mindfulness to help cope with the negative emotions, behaviors, and thoughts that accompany depression and anxiety can be learned and employed on your own or under professional guidance. Currently, there are four recognized therapy models that are grounded in mindfulness and have been scientifically proven to change the brain through neuroplasticity. Mindfulness counters many of the cognitive symptoms associated with the conditions, like distorted thinking, poor concentration, and negative thoughts.
Focusing on the here and now helps a person become aware of their anxiety and depression-producing thoughts and emotions, acknowledge them without judgment and realize they’re not accurate reflections of reality. Through practicing mindfulness, thoughts and emotions lose their power over your brain and life, and you can start to detach from them and not “go down the rabbit hole” with them. There are many ways to practice mindfulness on your own. Meditation is just one way. Read more
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