Mindfulness: For those who don’t like meditation and why you want to start today.
This October, Whole and Holistic will be featuring the popular topic of Mindfulness, diving into the how, who, what, when, where and why. Today I will be focusing on what mindfulness really is and how it works to affect our minds and bodies.
Mindfulness is, “ the awareness that arises through intentionally attending to oneself and others in an open, caring, and nonjudgmental way.” (Shapiro & Carlson, 2017). Let’s break that down, shall we?
Keys to mindfulness:
Awareness: Awareness connotes attention and attention requires the present moment. Awareness is that attention of what is happening currently (rather than pre-occupation of the past or the future).
Intention: Mindfulness takes time to develop. It is a mental habit, and like any habit, it requires repetition. For this repetition to happen, intention is essential. Intention to pay attention with compassion; intention to notice; intention to stay present. Without intention, we get overwrought with an avalanche of thoughts (usually not positive ones, am-I-right?) and inevitably spiral into an anxious/depressive hole.
Caring and non-judgmental: This part is very important and I will use an example to explain. If I am driving my friends car, try to park and scratch it in the process, this can go a couple of different ways. One is, “S*@t, they are going to be so mad at me, I don’t have the money to pay to get this fixed, I am irresponsible, a bad driver, untrustworthy etc.” until I spiral into anxiety and self-doubt that is difficult to get out of. With employing mindfulness (which is easier said than done, but it gets easier with practice), the thought pattern might go like this, “I scratched my friend’s car. It’s not ideal. I’m feeling anxiety arise because I’m worried about how I will pay for it and what my friend will think. This doesn’t define me. My anxiety is present, but this doesn’t mean I have to let it take over etc.” These are two different mental reactions to the same event, however the fact remains the same regardless of which reaction is chosen; the car is scratched. However, the mental/emotional anguish is vastly different. It is taking a step back, and observing what comes up with compassion.
This means that mindfulness is not necessarily meditating, although the two are often related. Mindfulness is a practice. It is something that we can do all day, everyday; in every interaction, with every bite, with every breath. Often when I talk to patients about mindfulness, the response is, “I can’t clear my mind for 20 minutes”, and hey, I don’t blame you! The key here is that mindfulness is not about completely clearing your mind of all thought. It is actually the opposite in a sense because it is about attending to what you are doing in that moment and the thoughts you have and noticing them with love and openness. It allows us to respond more thoughtfully, less emotionally and therefore creates less distress in each of us.
So, we now know what mindfulness is, but how does it actually work? Here are some proposed mechanisms (it gets a bit nerdy, but stay with it).
- A study comparing mindfulness and Superficial Neurostimulation Application (SNSA), a technique that promotes alpha rhythms in the prefrontal cortex, found similar results between SNSA and mindfulness. So, it is suggested that mindfulness works by changing brainwaves in the part of your brain that is responsible for a positive mood.
- Mindfulness has been shown to impact attention regulation, body awareness, emotional regulation and change in perspective of the self. These four areas of impact affect an individual’s overall experience of positivity.
- They have found there are also neuroplastic changes (micro-structural changes of how brain cells communicate) in certain areas of the brain. Specifically, there was an increase in grey matter density in the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex after only 8 weeks of mindfulness practice; the increase in grey matter in these areas shows up generally as increased ability to regulate emotion.
- Additionally, MRIs have shown a ‘greater resting state connectivity’ in meditators than in those who don’t engage in mindfulness practices. So what does this mean? This translates into increased “conflict monitoring and cognitive control over the function of default mode network” (Holzel, Britta et al, 2011). You can think of this default mode network as your usual default thinking patterns that tend towards anxiety and are usually not helpful (ie. I scratched my friend’s car and now I am a bad person), so mindfulness helps to increase cognitive control over that defaulted thinking pattern. Cool, eh?
Stay tuned for more on how to implement strategies to bring this into your daily life, what it has been shown to be effective for and more!
Shapiro, S. L., & Carlson, L. E. (2017). The art and science of mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions (2nd ed.). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
Rico, P., and P. Aranguren. "Comparative study of the frontal EGG activity after superficial neuro-stimulation application, mindfulness and other attentional techniques." European Psychiatry 41 (2017): S637-S638.
Hölzel, Britta K., et al. "How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective." Perspectives on psychological science6.6 (2011): 537-559.
Tang, Yi‐Yuan, et al. "Improving executive function and its neurobiological mechanisms through a mindfulness‐based intervention: Advances within the field of developmental neuroscience." Child development perspectives 6.4 (2012): 361-366.