Mindful Monday: Change Your Brain ~ One Breath at a Time

Preliminary research is now showing that meditation can improve the immune system, reduce blood pressure and cortisol  (the stress hormone), boost attention, decrease emotional reactivity and improve overall resilience. Meditation has been shown to to cultivate a longer attention span and improve empathy towards others. Meditation is a stabilizer of the mind. WOW!

Practicing the two mindfulness exercises below can literally change your brain!

First, a little background…

Neuroplasticity (it’s a mouthful but a cool concept!)

You may have heard the term “neuroplasticity” which is the new psychobabble buzz word. It sounds cool and if you use it, you sound smart. Simply put, neuroplasticity means that the brain is able to continually change throughout one’s life as a result of new experiences. It is a new buzz word because we used to think that the brain was fixed and basically we were all screwed by the time we were middle aged! Thanks to researchers and scientists interested in the brain (probably because they were middle aged and wanted to prove life wasn’t over!), we now know that our brains are capable of growing and changing throughout our lives. Mindfulness meditation is one way that we can enhance the neuroplasticity and enjoy more resilience, health, less stress, improve our learning and memory, and experience more stability. Who doesn’t want all that ?!

More Benefits for Your Brain…

Exciting news for trauma survivors or those with high levels of anxiety, studies are also showing that mindfulness can actually decrease the activation of the amygdala, the ‘fight or flight’ center of our brain and even shrink the size of this danger center, allowing us less reactivity and more peace. 

“Not only does the amygdala shrink post mindfulness practice, but the functional connections between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex are weakened. This allows for less reactivity, and also paves the way for connections between areas associated with higher order brain functions to be strengthened (i.e. attention, concentration, etc.)”. https://www.mindful.org/how-the-brain-changes-when-you-meditate/

Lastly, mindfulness has been shown to decrease rumination and entrenchment in our own story. Many people typically spend a lot of time dwelling on their own personal narratives – the fight they had with their spouse, what they should have said to their boss, what they are going to do with their career. “By definition, mindfulness moves us away from our personal narrative about how our life should be and into how life actually is, moment to moment…..When we move out of the story of our lives and into the actual lived experience of it, we feel better”. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/mindfulness-meditation_b_3238677

Now It is Your Turn !

Here are two simple exercises – starting with your breath – to help you practice mindfulness and Change Your Brain! 

The Mindful Breath

Take a long, deep breath. Focus your attention on your breath. Notice the sound of your breath as you inhale and exhale. Notice the sensation of air passing through each nostril as you breathe in and out. Feel your chest and abdomen rise and fall. If your attention gets pulled away, just bring yourself back to your breath and breathe. Practice inhaling to a count of 4, holding for a count of 2, and exhaling to a count of 6. Extending the exhale has been shown to engage the parasympathetic nervous system – the ‘rest and digest’ part of your nervous system that helps you relax and calm down, slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure and restore to safety.

Engage Curiosity and Take Control of the Spotlight  

I like to use the metaphor of a spotlight to help explain the practice of mindfulness. Imagine a spotlight up at the top of a theater, shining a bright light down upon a stage. Your thoughts, attention and reactions are alive on stage. Typically, our hands are off the spotlight and the light is shifting from one experience to another, directionless. The light moves quickly from one thought, feeling, or experience to another. The spotlight follows distractions, the next shiny object and any big, strong emotions. Whoever is louder gets the spotlight. Mindfulness is the practice of grabbing hold of the spotlight and shining the light where you want it to shine. As you engage this practice, you stabilize the spotlight, and stabilize your mind. Neural networks in the brain are stabilized. You are less distracted and less reactive – you are not following the biggest, loudest emotion or thought on stage. You are shining the light where you want it to shine. 

Start by sitting comfortably, closing your eyes and imagine you are in a theater, sitting in the audience of your mind. Engage your curiosity. Begin by noticing where the spotlight is shining on stage. Notice where your attention is going. No judgment, no attempt to control it…just notice. Be curious. Breathe. Notice if the spotlight is shifting from one thought or feeling to another. Notice if a particular thought or big emotion is drawing your attention to it – shining the light in that direction.

Next, Imagine climbing up the stairs to the balcony of the theater where the spotlight is set up. Notice if the spotlight is shifting from one scene to another on stage. Breathe. Take a hold of the handles and purposefully shine the light on a thought, an image, a feeling. Hold it there and breathe. Notice if you feel different as you shift from directionless wandering of your light to a focused attention. You may move the spotlight around, but take your time with each scene. Be purposeful. Be patient. Be curious. When you are complete, you may simply turn off the light. Offer yourself a moment of gratitude for the experience. 

Daily practices of breathing, being curious and shining your spotlight with purpose, will lead to good emotional and physical health. Change your brain today!

Additional references: https://www.spring.org.uk/2014/02/8-wonderful-psychological-effects-of-being-compassionate.php ; https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3477&context=honors_theses ; https://www.happify.com/hd/the-power-of-mindfulness/ ; https://eocinstitute.org/meditation/10-key-brain-regions-upgraded-with-meditation-2/ ; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944261/ ; https://observer.com/2017/06/neuroscience-mindfulness-brain-when-you-meditate-development/ ; https://health.usnews.com/health-care/for-better/articles/2017-08-04/how-curiosity-changes-your-brain