While mental health professionals often rave about the various therapeutic benefits to incorporating a mindfulness practice into your day, research now indicates that it also produces cognitive and psychological improvements. According to a 2011 study from Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, these improvements may be due to changes in your brain structure.
Participants took part in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, as well as a weekly meditation group. When magnetic resonance (MR) images were examined after the program was completed, researches found the following structural changes that were not found in the control group:
- Increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, important for learning and memory
- Increased grey-matter in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection
- Decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is responsible for anxiety
Studies, such as this one are very exciting, as we now know that mindfulness is not just “relaxing,” but also that it allows us to actively change our brains.
Responding vs. Reacting
Something I often work on with clients is responding rather than reacting. Just as studies show the flexibility of our brains to change, a mindfulness practice can do the same for our behavior. We can learn to respond to situations, rather than react to them. My clients report that such flexibility in responding also gives them a sense of control in emotional situations.
One of the reasons it is challenging to intentionally respond rather than react to an emotional situation is because of our limbic system or what I’ve previously referred to as our “emotional brain.” This emotional brain is responsible for our fight or flight instincts. Thus, when this part of our brain feels threatened, it is more difficult for us to be present and relaxed in the moment.
When we employ mindfulness techniques to relax and become aware in the moment, we are able to fight off these automatic reactions and essentially re-balance the emotional brain.
This conscious control over our emotional and behavioral responses, definitely takes practice, but is worth the work.
Below is an abbreviated version of an exercise I often use with clients, called The Red Flag Exercise. (This is used for people who are familiar with mindfulness exercises & techniques).
Goal: By gaining awareness about the present state of your mind and body, you will be more able to identify triggers and “red flags.” These red flags act as signals to employ relaxation and present-focused techniques to allow you to more deliberately choose your response, rather than reacting automatically.
1- Notice the trigger (i.e. My boss did not acknowledge my hard work).
2- Identify red flags
Do a body scan to identify red flags, which are physical, emotional or behavioral reactions. (i.e. tightness in your chest)
3- Go to your toolbox
Use the red flags as a signal that it’s time to visit your toolbox. This is the moment when you are attempting to create enough space to choose your response rather than reacting. (i.e. I will do a 1 minute breathing exercise to relax my body)
4- Add to your toolbox
Fill up your toolbox with useful activities and methods to get you in the space where you can arrive at the point to choose your deliberate action. Tools may include a body scan, breathing exercise, meditation, journaling about the present moment, etc).
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Viktor E. Frankl
If you are a therapist looking to integrate mindfulness into your therapy practice, check out this wonderful conference hosted by the Association for Humanistic Psychology at USC on March 3, 2012! REGISTER HERE
References & Resources
Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, Sara W. Lazar.Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011; 191 (1): 36
Moyer, C. A. et al. (2011). Frontal Electroencephalographic Asymmetry Associated With Positive Emotion Is Produced by Very Brief Meditation Training. Psychological Science