By Carissa Weber
Everyone is always trying to find ways to calm themselves. In the busy world of ours that correlates productivity with success, many people feel relaxation is a luxury. This thought is just plain wrong! Relaxation is something all animals need in order to maintain both mental and physical health. Have you ever seen a cat? Our little friends are the epitome of health and look how much relaxing they do!
On a serious note, we often struggle to find the time to practice relaxation and mindfulness during our day. How many of you even notice when you need mindfulness? Better question yet, do you know what mindfulness really is? This post will go over the practice of mindfulness, the benefits of mindfulness skills, and how to put it to use in your (hectic and chaotic) life.
First, lets dive into some history of modern-day mindfulness. It is well accepted that Buddhism and Hinduism provided us with the ground work of meditation and bringing attention to the present moment and experiences. The practice of mindfulness was used for thousands of years for spiritual purposes as well as to gain awareness, remain in the present moment, decrease judgement of the present situation, assist with mental clarity, decrease pain sensations, and promote mental and physical balance (talk about a multi-tasking coping skill!).
Lets fast forward, oh, four thousand years. Our modern-day practice of mindfulness didn’t start until the 1960s when Buddhist monks brought their practices to college campuses across Europe and the United States when they immigrated here from Asia (big thank you to the monks!) (Nisbet, 2017). During this time, a man by the name of Jon Kabet-Zinn was also trying to introduce the idea of meditation and mindfulness to the United States as an alternative to traditional medical intervention with his mindfulness institutes connected with the University of Massachusetts Medical School (Selva, 2020). Also happening around this time, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzburg (who all studied Buddhism in Asia) opened up the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts as a way to assist people to decrease their stress levels. These three things all helped mindfulness take root in Western Culture.
According to Mayo Clinic, “Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.” This ties in directly with the original purpose that the Buddhist monks and Hindu Priests had thousands of years ago. If you recall from one of my previous posts, Amped Up or Shut Down: The Many Sides of Anxiety, those of us struggling with anxiety are trying to do things to avoid icky and sticky feelings. So why practice something that would make us sit with those thoughts and feelings? Onward to my favorite part, the science behind why mindfulness works.
Mindfulness has been shown to directly impact that darn amygdala. By practicing mindfulness, the action shrinks that emotional, impulsive amygdala down, making its voice a bit quieter. What does that mean? That darn amygdala starts to calm down and not be going a million miles a second, and help regulate our emotions (who doesn’t love that?!).
The prefrontal cortex benefits from mindfulness, too. Practicing mindfulness on a regular bases strengthens the matter that makes up the prefrontal cortex, meaning it has a stronger voice. With a stronger prefrontal cortex, this also means our problem-solving, fact-checking, and objective thinking is stronger (Joshi, 2017).
Mindfulness also helps our hypothalamus Our memory center beefs up to remember more memories and recalls memories faster when we regularly practice mindfulness. The hippocampus also benefits from mindfulness and meditation. Along with helping the hypothalamus with memories, the hippocampus will release more acetylcholine (the neurotransmitters that controls muscle tension), GABA (the neurotransmitters responsible for calming us down), and glutamate (the neurotransmitter associated with memories) when the time is right. Another cool thing that happens when we practice mindfulness regularly is that our hippocampus heals from the damage done by that darn amygdala being telling us we are stressed all the time (Powell, 2018).
What about the thalamus? Does meditation and mindfulness change it? The thalamus sees a lot of changes as sensory information being given to it slows down (Virtgaym, 2014). This means it has more time to process the information it is being given and prevents us from going into the triple F (fight-flight-freeze) response that darn amygdala is always ranting about.
Isn’t it amazing how we can change our brain to not only calm down, but recognize when stress is actually necessary? I bet you are wondering, “how long does it take to see our brain change?” Alvin Powell over at the Harvard Gazette shared part of a study done by Gaëlle Desbordes and Benjamin Shapero done at Harvard Medical School (Powell, 2018). In the study, they did brain imagery on people who were (and weren’t) actively practicing mindfulness to see if there actually was a difference in brain structure. Through their brain images, they were able to see that daily use of mindfulness positively changed the brain in 8 weeks (that is 56 days!). In brain talk, that is a short time.
Coping Skills Alert!
Now that we have the history and the evidence to back mindfulness techniques up, it is time to go over some of the most common ways to practice mindfulness. Mindful breathing calms our anxiety and checks our depression in a couple of different ways:
- Controls our rate of breathing, which lowers our heart rate and blood pressure
- This is a physical bi-product of the fight-flight-freeze response that floods our brain with adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol (better known as the neurotransmitters that stress us out and help that darn amygdala grow stronger)
- Increases the percentage of oxygen in our body
- This triggers that darn amygdala to give the “all clear” to our brain and stop the stress response
- Release serotonin and dopamine into our brain
- This makes us feel good, overall
Since it is the simplest way to practice mindfulness, lets recap the steps to mindful breathing:
- sit in a comfortable position
- Slowly inhale through your nose and into your diaphragm ( to make it simple, breathing so that your belly expands) for 6 seconds
- Hold that process in your belly for two seconds
- Slowly at exhale out of your mouth for eight seconds, or until you feel like you have no breath left
- Repeat this pattern of breathing for 3 to 5 minutes (or how long it takes for you to feel calm).
- If you want evidence the deep breathing is working, take your heart rate before you start the deep breathing. After each minute of practicing the breathing, take your heart rate again. Your heart rate will go down!
What makes mindful breathing, well, mindful, is what we are doing while we are breathing. While you are breathing, notice the physical sensations that are happening when you are inhaling, holding your breath, and exhaling. For example, do you notice specific muscles tightening or loosening? Are you feeling your heart speed up or slow down? What is your jaw doing? It is perfectly normal for your thoughts to wander around when you first start mindful breathing (or any mindful exercise for that matter). If you notice you are thinking about what to make for dinner, what you’re going to wear tomorrow, or even how dumb the exercise of mindful breathing is, let your prefrontal cortex tell that darn amygdala to kindly shut up and return to focusing on what your body is doing in the moment.
Psst! Keep that above paragraph in the back of your mind. It is the heart of mindfulness skills.
Another way to bring mindfulness into your life is by using your senses. Our senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing) are the initial trigger source to our anxiety and/or depression responses. As much as they can trigger the stress response, they can trigger our body to calm down by releasing endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine (A.K.A. – the feel good neurotransmitters) into our brain. Below is one way to use your senses to help you with your mindful journey:
If you remember the heart of mindfulness, make sure you are focusing on what that sense is allowing you to experience. Lets look at some examples of being present with your senses:
- If you are looking at a piece of art, identify each individual color and texture in it. Allow your brain to acknowledge the emotion that piece of art makes you feel. Focus on what your body is feeling when those emotions are being identified.
- When using your sense of touch, label the sensations you are feeling in your body. Focus on identifying the textures in what you are touching (is it fuzzy or smooth? Hard or soft? Hot or cold? Heavy or light?) Focus on the feeling that physical sensation gives you. Does this sensation bring on a good memory? It is okay to think of that memory?
- Take a bit of your favorite candy. Let your body describe how that piece of candy feels in your mouth. Identify each flavor you taste while you slowly chew that piece of candy. Does this piece of candy change how your jaw moves/feels? You can focus on that sensation. Does the sensation or taste change when you swallow? You can label those sensations as part of being mindful with your candy.
- This is the premise of another mindful skill called mindful eating. It is a great skill for those of us who stress eat, have a lot of digestive issues related to anxiety and depression, or could be struggling with an eating disorder
- Pick out a specific sound that is happening around you. This can be vehicle traffic, distant music, birds chirping, kids playing, the list goes on. Take time to listen to what the sound is. Describe the sound and the origin of the sound. If you are listening to a song, pick out words in the lyrics or musical instruments in the song. Identify any physical sensations or actions the music makes you feel (do you bob your head along with it? Does it make you want to conduct an orchestra? Does it change your heart rate or breathing?).
- Smelling. Take a big breath of your favorite scent (mine is the smell of horses, personally). Focus on what your body does as you take that initial inhale. Take a moment to label the emotions that come from that scent and if it triggers a positive memory. Let your brain remember that positive memory as it will trigger the release of GABA and another feel-good neurotransmitter, oxytocin.
Remember, the goal is to let your body focus on the sensations your body is feeling and being present in the moment. The more we allow our body to become in-tune with the thoughts in the present, the stronger our brain becomes. Think of it like planks and push-ups for your brain.
Meditation. This word has been used with mindfulness (and interchangeably) throughout this post. Meditation is using the heart skill of focusing on your body’s sensations and the feelings they evoke, while getting comfortable. Taking direction from Inner IDEA at www.gaiam.com, they recommend the following steps to easy meditation:
- Sit or lie comfortably. This can be in a chair, on the floor, or in your bed
- Close your eyes. If you would like, you can put an eye mask on to help keep the room dark and your brain in focus.
- Do not control your breathing; simply breathe naturally.
- Focus your attention on your breathing and how your body moves with each inhalation and exhalation. Notice the movement of your body as you breathe in your chest, shoulders, rib cage, and belly. Simply pay attention to your breath without controlling its pace or intensity.
- If your mind wanders, that is fine. Acknowledge the thought and return back to focusing on your breathing
You can start by practicing meditation for 3 minutes at a time. As you feel comfortable, slowly increase your time of meditation. Is there an optimal length of time of meditation? There is! Going back to the study done by Gaëlle Desbordes and Benjamin Shapero, being able to practice 45 minutes a day will provide optimal brain healing and rewiring. Does that mean shorter meditation times don’t work as well? Nope. Just like with any other skill, you need to take time to learn it and get your brain used to it. If you went to the gym, would you start at deadlifting 200 pounds? Of course not! This is a good way to injure your body. Starting small and within your window of strength gives you better results in the long run. That is the same with any mindfulness technique: starting small and frequently will build up your exercise tolerance and help you heal and change your brain!
As you practice mindfulness more, your brain starts to see this as the new way to function. This is neat because if you start to feel your anxiety creep up, or your mood change because of your depression, you can use these mindfulness skills to help your prefrontal cortex to tell that darn amygdala to kindly (or aggressively) calm down.
The above listed skills are just some of the ways to practice mindfulness. There are other ways, but these are three ways that allow you to practice mindfulness at home, at school, at work, or even on the go. This means, there is really no excuse not to take time to take care of yourself (even if it is just 3 minutes locked in a bathroom or before you get out of your car to go into the house). You can take the steps listed above and use them during daily tasks (like cooking dinner, walking, falling asleep, or taking a nice quiet shower) to enhance the natural serotonin-releasing abilities.
I want to thank you for taking time to invest in yourself and mental health. It is a long journey, but with the right information, it is possible to help your brain change how it reacts to the world around it. I want to challenge you to start using mindfulness daily to help you on your journey of mental health. Even if it is a short-term experiment, try it to see if it does change your mood, thought process, concentration, and health. Next week, you can look forward to learning more about the science behind depression and how it works in our brain.
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- Inner IDEA (Date Unknown). Meditation 101: Techniques, Benefits, and a Beginer’s How-To. Retrieved from How To Meditate – Meditation 101: Meditation Techniques & Benefits – Gaiam
- Joshi, Meera (2017). How Does Mindfulness Affect the Brain? Retrieved from How does mindfulness affect the brain? (bupa.co.uk)
- Mayo Clinic Staff (date unknown). Mindfulness Exercises. Retrieved from Mindfulness exercises – Mayo Clinic
- Nisbet, Matthew (2017). The Mindfulness Movement: How a Buddhist Practice Evolved into a Scientific Approach to Life. Retrieved from The mindfulness movement: How a Buddhist practice evolved into a scientific approach to life – Matthew Nisbet (northeastern.edu)
- Powell, Alvin (2018). When Science Meets Mindfulness. Retrieved from Harvard researchers study how mindfulness may change the brain in depressed patients – Harvard Gazette
- Selva, Joaquin (2020). History of Mindfulness: From East to West and Religion to Science. Retrieved from History of Mindfulness: From East to West and Religion to Science (positivepsychology.com)
- Elizabeth Virtgaym (2014). The Power of Meditation. Retrieved from The Power of Meditation » the nerve blog | Blog Archive | Boston University (bu.edu)