Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment—and accepting it without judgment. It is a quality that every human being already possesses, you just have to learn how to access and utilize it.
Mindfulness is a good way to keep yourself living in the present. When you find yourself wondering about an uncertain future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness can bring you back to the present moment.
3 Key characteristics of mindfulness
Intention to cultivate awareness
Attention to what is occurring in the present moment by simply observing thoughts, feelings and sensations as they arise.
Attitude that is non-judgmental, curious, and kind.
How does stress & anxiety affect our brain?
Most of us think that stress is something we need to avoid at all costs. However, we could not function without stress, and in small amounts is healthy for us. Stress can motivate us and gets us up and going. But when stress gets chronic, it can become harmful to us and our bodies. You have almost likely heard about the fight or flight response? Right? When you’re stressed the fear center in the brain, called the amygdala, an almond-sized shape part of your brain takes over. This is called the flight-or flight response. For our prehistoric ancestors, the fight or flight response was essential when being chased by a wild animal. However, in modern times this reaction in the brain can become a problem because our brain does not know the difference between real-life threats and being in traffic for instance. When the brain is under constant stress it can change in ways that make you even more vulnerable to stress. A constant flow of stress hormones can also do damage by weakening your immune system, leaving you more prone to infections and diseases.
Research Studies on how Mindfulness decreases stress & anxiety
While mindfulness techniques like meditation have been around for thousands of years, it’s only in recent times that scientists are uncovering the full effect that mindfulness has on our brains. One of the biggest discoveries has been the process called neuroplasticity. This explains how the brain can change, literally change, from lived experiences. In simple terms, mindfulness strengthens the good parts of your brain and helps calm the parts that stress you out.
Harvard neuroscientists observed people who had never meditated before as they went through an eight-week mindfulness training program.* The results demonstrated that mindfulness activates the parts of the brain related to memory storage, empathy, and emotional regulation, as evidenced by an increase in brain volume in the hippocampus (major role in learning and memory) and temporoparietal junction (brain region that is important for numerous aspects of social cognition.) This means that by practicing mindfulness, one can reduce anxiety, stress & chronic pain, improve mood & happiness, boost concentration & self-esteem.
Another really interesting study, carried out at Yale University, found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts – a.k.a., “monkey mind.” The DMN is “on” or active when we’re not thinking about anything in particular when our minds are just wandering from thought to thought. Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, it’s the goal for many people to dial it down. Several studies have shown that meditation, through its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it.
How to start being mindful?
There are formal and informal techniques you can apply.
When you are doing a formal meditation practice you intentionally set aside a particular block of time that you are going to practice your meditation. When you do this, it allows you to train your mind more deeply. An informal meditation, on the other hand, is a practice that you can include throughout your daily routine, such as washing your dishes to become more present and aware in the moment.
If you are interested in learning how to become more mindful and learn different techniques that you can apply in your daily life, then you can schedule a free introduction call with me and we can see if my 4 week 1:1 mindfulness program would support you in your current goals and challenges.
You can also check out my podcast episode about mindfulness for more insights. Click HERE to listen to the episode.
We take care of the future by taking care of the present NOW. – Jon Kabat Zinn.