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.
Trying to write my dissertation jolted me into a realm of self-blame and self-criticism. I procrastinated because it was a burden, a dragon whose fiery mouth I wanted to avoid at all cost. I was anxious and I struggled with that internal voice of doubt that whispered, “are you sure you are good enough for this?”
Early on, immersing myself didn’t feel good. I definitely did not expect it to be easy. Nothing worth doing gets done without hard work ever is – but I certainly couldn’t have predicted the negative energy that I allowed the dissertation to create.
So I avoided it in an attempt to make all the negativity disappear. Of course, the more I avoided it, the bigger it became.
Then I began to devote myself to a modest practice of yoga to find more tranquility, focus, and calm. At first it was nearly impossible. My mind raced with thoughts: thoughts of fear, uncertainty, worthlessness, inability to succeed, and even thoughts about thoughts.
My initial poses were haphazard, pretzel-like and ungraceful. My breath pattern was quick and shallow, reflecting my difficulty holding the asanas as my mind strayed in all directions. “At least,” I kept telling myself, “I was coming to the mat.”
As long as I carved out my space, a little rectangular niche of my neon green rubber yoga mat, I was going to be okay. By the time savasana approached I could at least surrender my self-deprecating thoughts to some indescribable energy created by the convergent effects of movement and breath.
Yoga gave me perspective, which I craved, and I began to practice up to four days a week. Soon, the natural progression of my day became a yoga practice and then hours of writing. The energy generated through yoga was evident in the organization of my thought and ability for my thought to be transferred coherently into words. To do yoga and then write was a logical pattern I fell into.
Ultimately, I chose to bring my journey both off the mat, and out from behind my computer. I let go of the striving to finish it, and the attitude of just “needing to get this done and over with.” Slowly but steadily learned to reinforce the small steps, as I remembered my practice and the way my once quick and shallow breath slowed down and became more melodic, deep, and visceral, to the little baby steps I made with my balance until my physical core and my spiritual core became stronger.
In this way, the yoga was an organic foray into learning about mindfulness and how to engage any process through a more mindful lens. As I cultivated my ability to focus on the breath as I moved in and out of asana, my mind wandered less; instead, I became present to the moment as it was unfolding. Being present, it turned out, was more enjoyable and fulfilling than remaining on autopilot, and, at the whim of my wandering mind. With the same practice off the mat, the dissertation no longer became something I just did, but became a journey, which I appreciated and sometimes even savored, at every stage.
Yoga practice fostered a lens by which I could see my dissertation as a metaphor for living life in general. That is, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “on purpose.”
In the end, neither yoga nor mindfulness will eliminate life’s pressures. Yet, take it from me: embracing life as a journey of poignant moments to be lived fully over the course of a lifetime makes me feel like I’m thriving.
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?
As a psychologist, I often use elements of mindfulness practice with my clients, and before I do, I talk to them about what mindfulness actually means and how it can help cultivate wellbeing.
In today’s day and age, mindful and mindfulness are buzzwords that are used colloquially. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been told to “BE MINDFUL.”
Yet, what is mindfulness and what does it really mean?
What Is Mindfulness?
There are many definitions. My favorite is the one posited by John Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of Mindfulness Meditation’s use in Western psychological interventions. He proposes that mindfulness is “a state of greater awareness cultivated by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Part of why I like this definition is because it speaks to the components of mindfulness that are important in cultivating its benefits.
Let’s break this definition down.
When we don’t hone our focus, as Kabat-Zinn says, on purpose, we remain on autopilot. In this busy, hyper-connected world it’s too easy to lose ourselves in autopilot for much of the day….every day. Living this way we often fail to:
Notice the beauty of life
Hear what our bodies are telling us and
Get stuck in mechanical ways of thinking and living that may be harmful to ourselves or others
When we’re in autopilot mode we get lost in ‘doing’ so we find ourselves striving and struggling and ‘getting stuff done’ instead of living.
In contrast, when we are attentive on purpose, we start to live more consciously. We’re more awake and more fully ourselves.
In this age of mass distraction, there is nothing more important. There are so many ways to disconnect and distract ourselves from ourselves. We easily disperse our energy, leaving little or none leftover to nurture ourselves.
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.
When we don’t allow ourselves to attend to the present, we:
Place ourselves at greater risk for depression and anxiety, because we ruminate and regret the past or fantasize about the future.
Fail to notice what our bodies and minds are telling us at the deepest levels.
We like to hang out in the past, because although sometimes painful, it’s known and comfortable. Or, we hang out in the future, because we think we can control it!
Instead, when we’re mindful, we hone our clarity and focus as we attend to every sensation as it unfolds, engaged and undistracted in the present moment experience. We let go of the tension caused by wanting things to have been or to be different, and instead we accept the present moment as it is.
When practicing mindfulness, we’re not trying to control, suppress, or stop our thoughts. I believe this is the biggest misconception many of us have when delving into practice.
Through mindfulness we don’t want to push our thoughts away. Rather, mindfulness helps us to pay attention to our experiences as they arise without judging or labeling them in any way. This, I think, is the essence of mindfulness.
When we cultivate a state of clarity in which we suspend judgment, we become witnesses and watchers of our present moment experience. Sure, there’s temptation to judge our experience as good or bad. Yet, letting go of judgments helps us to see things as they are rather than through the filters of our patterned and conditioned modes of thinking. This way, we are less likely to mechanically play out old habitual ways of thinking and living.
In the end, mindfulness doesn’t eliminate life’s pressures, but it can help us respond to them in a less reactive, more adaptive and healthy way. It will help us recognize and step away from unconscious emotional and physiological reactions to everyday experiences.
It also provides us with a scientifically researched approach to cultivating clarity, insight, and understanding. Practicing mindfulness allows us to be fully present in our life and work, and improve our quality of life.
Many have found that one of the surest ways to begin to hone clarity and focus is to pay attention to the one thing that is always within us, our breath. By paying attention to the breath we learn to stay present with it. At the same time, we learn to let go of the judgments when our focus is challenged. During this personally curated exercise, I help you become acutely aware of the sensation of diaphragmatic breathing. By breathing fully through your diaphragm, you are creating a relaxed physiological state. By sustaining your attention on the breath, you are training your mind to focus on this sensation as it unfolds in the moment.