Live your best life: Mindfully control your brain’s reaction to stress
Did you know that the brain’s “stress center,” the amygdala, shrinks post mindfulness practice? In addition, the functional connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are weakened. This allows for less reactivity to life’s basic stresses, and paves the way for higher order brain functions to be strengthened (i.e. attention, concentration, etc.)
The impact that mindfulness exerts on our brain is borne from routine: a slow, steady, and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental, and less reactive. Just as playing the piano over and over again over time strengthens and supports brain networks involved with playing music – mindfulness over time can make the brain, and thus, us, more efficient regulators, with a penchant for pausing to respond to external stimuli instead of mindlessly reacting.
The amazing thing about mindfulness is that you can apply it to any action you engage in on a daily basis; cooking, cleaning, walking to work, talking to a friend, driving – or even drawing or coloring!
Why coloring? Well, for one, we all need to embrace our inner child! As adults, we don’t do enough coloring, or any type of play for that matter. Did you know that play can help reduce stress? Also, believe it or not, coloring utilizes areas of the brain that enhance focus and concentration, and nurturing attention is one of the mechanisms by which mindfulness leads to well-being.
That is helpful, because when we are engaged “on purpose” in a particular task, by focusing on it instead of remaining on autopilot, then our negative and unhelpful thinking seems far away (i.e. isn’t on our minds!) Our minds literally can’t focus on both at the same time.
Yet, it should not be seen as just a distraction from really dealing with our “problems”. By engaging in this exercise, we can continue to deepen our ability to be mindful and train our mind to stay in the present moment rather than habitually straying into unhelpful thoughts about the past or future, to rather stay non-judgmentally present to our every sensation as it unfolds. In this way, we are better equipped to calmly approach our anxiety and parse out if it is a real or imagined stress.
How to practice mindful coloring:
Start with colored pencils, or crayons or any other drawing/coloring tool that feels right to you.
Take a moment to notice the feeling of these instruments in your hand. Their weight, texture, the engineering that went into their creation…
Then, listen to your gut, and start to color without too much thought about it. Don’t analyze your drawing, rather, just let what comes organically come. Try not to edit.
If you want, you can print multiple pages so you can do this over and over again.
See if you can focus also on the act of coloring itself as you are engaged in it. Here are some cues for you:
How does your hand move across the page? You might even want to spend some time following it.
How do the different strokes look? Notice the difference between using the sharp edge vs. the side of the pencil.
How do the different colors (if you are using multiple colors) add to the different parts of the image?
Notice, without judgment, as your drawing unfolds.
What does your unique brain look like?
In my ‘The Grand Conductor’ packet, we go through the biology of the brain, as well as the latest research on how to keep it in tip-top shape, but at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that we’re just brains studying brains. We’re limited in our understanding of the brain by the virtue of the very thing we’re using to study it!
In addition, just as every individual is unique, so is each brain different from the next, and, moreover, constantly changing as we age! So, let’s all open our minds (see what I did there?) and learn more about ours, and each other’s, unique brains.
Print out the brain image below and color it in however you please! Remember to try to practice staying mindful during the process. Let it reflect the latest brain science (learn more from the infographics at the bottom of this blog!) or let it reflect your own personal understanding of self. Whatever you decide – Let your mind soar! Keep in mind, it’s not about being an artist, in fact, no artistic skill is necessary. Just dive in and notice, again, without judgment, what the process is like for you. I’m going to do this as well, and share it on my social media pages, so stay tuned!
When you are finished, please, #ShareYourBrain on social media and tag @BrainCurves!
BRAIN EVOLUTION, ANATOMY & PHYSIOLOGY, AND WELLNESS INFOGRAPHICS
Here are five digestible bytes of well-regarded facts, opinions, and ideas about mindfulness meditation’s ability to lead to greater well-being!
1. Reframe the Experience of Pain:
Mindfulness meditation’s ability to provide pain relief can be done by cultivating the ability to parse between the objective sensory dimension of pain and the more subjective judgement that we attach to the pain and the way that we interpret it mentally.
A recent and groundbreaking review looked at 20 randomized control trials examining the effects of mindfulness meditation on the immune system. In reviewing the research, the authors found that mindfulness meditation “Reduced markers of inflammation, high levels of which are often correlated with decreased immune functioning and disease.”
Mindfulness meditation also increased the number of CD-4 cells, which are the immune system’s helper cells involved in destroying infections. There was also increased telomerase activity which helps promote the stability of chromosomes and prevent their deterioration (telomerase deterioration leads to cancer and premature aging).
Deregulation of the brain areas associated with emotional regulation and memory are key contributors to the symptoms associated with PTSD. In addition, an over-activity in the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, can be found in those suffering from Trauma-related disorders. Mindfulness reverses these patterns by increasing prefrontal and hippocampal activity, and toning down the amygdala.
In fact, brain scans confirm that mindfulness meditation is correlated with an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, a decrease of gray matter in the amygdala, and neuroimaging studies have found that mindfulness meditation also helps to activate the Pre-frontal Cortex.
Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense for treating anxiety. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” she explains. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.” Mindfulness meditation cultivates the ability to be more discerning. Subsequently, we can use the opportunity to take action on the problem solving, and to see the worry without judgment and more compassion.
In every situation, we can choose to REACT from a place of fear and perhaps anger, or RESPOND more mindfully.
Reacting is a reflexive, and sometimes impulsive, way to behave in a situation. It’s not adaptive and often leads to increased stress and tension. In contrast, responding is a more mindful approach to any given situation. But in order to respond in lieu of reacting, we need to STOP:
Take a breath.
Proceed (more mindfully).
Just ONE extra moment to take a step back, regroup, and consider a healthier response can make a huge difference.
When you watch the Olympics, you can’t help but imagine the countless hours of training all of the athletes have devoted themselves to in order to accomplish the unfathomable feats of stamina, incomprehensible shows of endurance, and extraordinary acts of skill.
And that kind of rigorous training, steeped in competition, often can’t be fully actualized without training the mind as well.
Some of the athletes have been vocal about their penchant for mindfulness meditation as an integral part of their quest for gold. For example, Tom Daley, a diver from Great Britain, told the Telegraph: “You can only do so much in the gym or in the pool.” He continued, “Every morning I do 10 minutes of mindfulness where I do meditation and I use that in competition and every day life… It’s helped me massively and I feel like that’s one of the reasons why this year I’ve been the most consistent that I’ve been in competition.”
But what’s clear is that the very mindful way these athletes approach their craft can be seen in their actions. Here are 4 lessons in mindfulness we can learn from the Olympians:
Focused Attention is a Skill
A main component of mindfulness is that it helps cultivate awareness by paying attention, on purpose, and in the present moment.
If left to its own devices, our human mind habitually wanders away from the present moment. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past, grasping and replaying it, or we project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown (and often catastrophizing).These habitual thought patterns don’t serve our ultimate well-being. This kind of thinking is unhelpful for an athlete who can’t stop thinking about their last failed performance, or one who can’t stop obsessing over what this performance will mean going forward.Have you ever heard a sports announcer say that an athlete must have “been in his head” too much – which caused them to make a simple mistake, but one that cost them the game or race? When we are too focused on what we need to do to win, we lose ourselves in that thought and forget to remain in the moment.
This year, Wilhem Belocian of France, bolted a split second before competitors. The false-start alarm rang out, and the 21-year-old’s hopes of winning a medal in Brazil were over. It was heartbreaking to watch as he collapsed to the ground and punched the pavement before laying on his back with his hands over his face, clearly in agony.
Present moment awareness, honed, is true gift. Equally important is allowing ourselves to grieve, and then forgive ourselves, and move on
Compassion is Essential
Mindfulness is more than sitting on a cushion, eyes closed, back aligned, thumbs grazing forefingers, hands resting on thighs. No doubt, this is a feasible and efficient way to cultivate mindfulness, but it’s not the only way.The essence of mindfulness practice is learning to live with more integrity, by nurturing the power to choose our response in any given situation. We begin to live mindfully when we start to cultivate a way of being that embodies mindfulness-based principles like gratitude, loving-kindness, and compassion.
When we are too focused on what we need to do to win, we lose ourselves in that thought and forget to remain in the moment.
For an Olympic athlete, this kind of mindfulness practice is perhaps most reflected in the ability to engage in “good sportsmanship.”A prime example of this is reflected in the actions of Abbey D’Agostino, a Team USA 5,000-meter runner, and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand. They both collided during a run, fell, and subsequently chose to spend the rest of the race encouraging one another, despite the fact that this had the potential to snuff out either’s chance to qualify for the next run. If someone who has trained and competed for years for this spot can forgive and help out their competition, surely we can see the bigger picture in our own lives as well.
But an appropriate amount of stress is actually adaptive. For athletes especially, the stress-response (also knows as “fight or flight”) elicits an acute surge of adrenaline, and stimulates an increase of blood pumping to the limbs, which helps them as they race towards the finish line. While this mental pressure to beat out the competition is often crucial to success, sometimes the physiological stress response never turns off, and for many of us, stress begins to take the form of negative and unhelpful thinking styles that are often paralyzing.That’s where mindfulness comes in.
A foundational element of mindfulness entails focusing on the sensation of the breath. Engaging the breath provides an opportunity to help lower your heart rate. Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” utilizes the diaphragm, and allows for a fuller, slower, and more rhythmical breath. This is a technique used to reduce stress by breaking shallow patterns of breathing that use the abdomen and the chest. It works, because the breath is intimately connected to the autonomic nervous system and the mind
Autopilot is Detrimental to Your Health
The practice of cultivating our attention to the present moment also prevents us from living on autopilot. When we live on autopilot we often fail to notice our automatic thoughts, our innermost feelings, and the subtle physical messages that our bodies send us.For an athlete, who is constantly putting their body through high-intensity training, it can be easy to let minor sensations slide, as the adrenaline itself drowns out some experience of acute pain. Mindfulness particularly allows an athlete to cultivate an acute awareness of their body, to know when and how to take care of it; when it needs a break, when it’s okay to push harder, when it needs to refuel, and when it needs a longer respite to heal.
When we live on autopilot we often fail to notice our automatic thoughts, our innermost feelings, and the subtle physical messages that our bodies send us.
To use Abbey D’Agostino as an amazing example again, after tearing ligaments in her knee, she understood that her season was over. But her message that it is more important to honor where her body is at, than to put it through activity that might exacerbate her injury beyond repair, prevailed nonetheless, and to many, she is still an Olympic winner—the true embodiment of what it means to be an athlete on the world stage.
Sometimes life takes us out of the race that we are in, out of the path we saw ourselves on, but at the same time, this change allows us instead to succeed in things we never imagined.
Go For the Gold
We all have our own golden pursuits. And we all have our own hurdles in life to jump, targets to aim for, and sand traps to avoid. But the real gold medal is a life of thriving, cultivated by paying attention to fully living and enjoying every moment. It really isn’t the destination that matters, but the journey that we take to get there.
How will you take these Olympic gold messages with you as you reach for your life goals?
There is a lot of research conveying mindfulness meditation’s positive impact upon psychological well-being. In fact, a vast literature of controlled studies has found that mindfulness meditation is related to improved mental health across a variety of disorders, including different anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and chronic pain symptom reduction.
Yet, the idea of mindfulness has become a buzzword of sorts, and despite research regarding positive outcomes, specific mechanisms associated with mindfulness and psychological well-being are unclear. (Additionally, the ambiguity in the term mindfulness, and how it’s approached in research, makes it difficult to parse out particular mechanisms responsible for clinical outcomes.)
Mindfulness and Attention Mechanisms
Despite these limitations, many research studies seem to indicate that cultivating different aspects of attention is a feasible and consistent starting point to bridging mindfulness practice and psychological well-being.
The question remains: How can cultivating multiple aspects of attention through mindfulness meditation account for psychological well-being?
This blog post is based on a review that supports a previously suggested idea that cultivating all aspects of attention through mindfulness leads to greater well-being by decreasing rumination.
Like mindfulness meditation itself, attention is not easily defined. Over two decades ago, researchers conveyed a conceptualization of attention as a multifaceted construct made up of the three unique and differentiated, yet overlapping networks called Alerting, Orienting, and Executive Attention—the latter includes regulatory processes like conflict-monitoring and metacognition.
Attention is also described in terms of the way it is regulated. In fact, meditation practices are usually described by the degree to which they entail “Focused Attention (FA)” and “Receptive Attention (RA).” Although sometimes likened specifically to RA, mindfulness practice is distinguishable by its utilization of both FA and RA.
Focused Attention: When our attention is focused, it is restricted to a specific object, which is commonly the neutral sensory experience of the breath going in and out.
Ideally, attention is sustained, but as thoughts, and/or feelings and/or physical sensations arise, a conflict is presented; different stimuli are pulling for attention.
Receptive Attention: After consistent practice, there is often less need for a specific object of focus (the breath), and we broaden the focus of our attention so that it is receptive to our entire field of awareness, including whatever thoughts, feelings and sensations arise in the moment.
Rumination: Rumination has been defined as a passive dwelling upon negative thoughts and/or emotion and is negatively correlated with aspects of psychological well-being.
As mentioned, this review supports mindfulness meditation’s role in improved psychological well-being, through the mechanism of reducing rumination via attentional processes.
The question remains as to how this actually plays out.
Distraction and Decentering
Rumination is decreased through a two-step process including distraction and decentering. These steps correspond to the attention regulation styles inherent to mindfulness meditation.
Early on in one’s mindfulness meditation practice, when it entails focused attention, attention is sustained on the neutral sensation of the breath. While this skill is being cultivated, ruminative thought processes likely interrupt the effort to sustain this attention.
The ability to monitor conflicts of attention, however, ensures that one is constantly distracting oneself from ruminative thoughts through the redirection of attention from rumination back to the breath.
According to the research, distraction is a healthier response to stress than rumination and entails a deliberate direction of attention away from ruminative thoughts onto a pleasant or neutral stimulus. Yet, research also indicated that although distraction is important, it only serves as temporary relief, because with distraction, avoidance is taking place.
In the long term, avoiding and pushing away thoughts through distraction is as inefficient as clinging to them through rumination. So, there is a process beyond distraction. Mindfulness meditation utilizes the benefits of distraction, but then goes beyond it in cultivating a more adaptive response to distress.
This is enabled through receptive attention, during which attentional focus is broadened and one is encouraged to be aware of all experiences. One now has the space to actually notice patterns of over-engagement in negative thoughts as opposed to suppressing them through distraction.
The ability to cultivate a broader range of awareness also cultivates the ability to decenter, which is enabled through enhanced metacognition, and allows for a stepping back from any possible secondary elaboration of ruminative thoughts.
This means that thoughts are nonjudgmentally accepted as just thoughts that come and go. When thoughts are seen as transient, one is more likely to feel disconnected to them.
How Mindfulness Meditation Creates a Shift
The idea inherent in both distraction and decentering is that a shift is taking place. During the former, one’s ability to distract and redirect attention away from rumination and to sustain attention on the neutral breath is a literal shift in attention that cultivates regulatory processes intrinsic to psychological well-being. During the latter, one has the opportunity to figuratively shift attention from the content of a thought toward the process of having one. That vantage point allows for a more objective and less judgmental perspective. This perspective is more adaptive and reflected in greater psychological well-being. Ultimately, engaging in mindfulness meditation cultivates our ability to both focus and broaden our attention, which is a practical way to elicit psychological well-being.
I’ve been writing recently about the profound connection between the brain and our gut! Most of my writing was intellectual, sometimes metaphorical, maybe a bit poetic, and also humbly instructional (i.e., the way mindful eating fosters health vis a vis this connection).
Today, here is part of my own journey with #AlimentaryAngst, the story that sparked my personal and professional quest to help heal mind through body, and body through mind.
Thank you to Further Food for publishing this and thank you for all the support. I hope this resonates-ultimately, that is why I’m putting THIS forth! What has YOUR journey been like? Comment below with your thoughts, I look forward to responding to each one.
Let’s rewind. February 2013, I noticed that I’d become more bloated than usual after a hearty meal. I experienced a feeling of pressure in my stomach, as well as visceral pain, both of which converged to create a really uncomfortable experience. I also had GERD, and my heart felt fiery. My xiphoid process felt irritated. I was a hot digestive mess.
As uncomfortable as it was, I kept my cool. It was only a few weeks later, when I looked down towards the floor and couldn’t see my own feet, that I gasped with every ounce of guttural energy I had in reserve. I looked six months pregnant.
I used my hands to cradle my inflamed belly and I cried. I cried for so many reasons: the pain, the discomfort, the cruel joke of hearing my biological clock tick so loud I thought I’d go deaf. I only looked pregnant, but wasn’t. Was this some kind of phantom pregnancy? Was that even a thing? Was I about to be catapulted into psychological stardom with my new discovery? This faux-preggers state was characterized by the undoubted lack of a fetus, but a great yearning for one, and a belly the size of six-month gestational equivalence.
I went to the doctor. Gave her a history, which was mostly sparse, except for the few things I seem to always be relaying to doctors. I felt lethargic and tired all the time, and I couldn’t seem to ever get enough sleep. I never woke up feeling rested. Overall, I’m healthy, and thankfully so, but there’s health and then there’s “HEALTH.” The difference is the same as that between surviving and thriving. I prefer to do the latter.
My diagnosis: Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which had nonchalantly decided to go camping in my gut, like a pesky parasite sucking the life out of every ounce of normal flora to be found. Camping: as in pitching tents, and starting fires, and sleeping in the dark hollows of my alimentary organs.
The road to wellness began with self-compassion. Then, I changed my diet, and embarked on a journey consisting of many lifestyle changes. This was both extraordinarily cathartic and vulnerable to write. Yet, as a mind-body-brain wellness advocate I truly think it is incumbent upon me to share my journey. Why? Well, because my journey is what catapulted me towards the process of researching, reading, conversing, asking, anything I could about the topic. Gut health became a focus of not only my own, but of my practice with my patients.
I am blown away by the connection between mind, body, brain and gut. In fact, the gut is so powerful, and exerts so much impact upon our daily lives, that it’s even been dubbed the second brain. For me, knowing there is a real live brain in my gut makes me think twice about what I put in it, and I’ve never felt better.
Check out my next post on Further Food-I’m going to keep it raw and real, but will get much more technical and science-y about the importance of gut health.