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WHAT MINDFULNESS IS
We use the word ‘Mindfulness’ to express a particular way of paying attention. It is the mental faculty of purposefully bringing awareness to one’s experience. Mindfulness can be applied to sensory experience, thoughts, and emotions by using sustained attention and noticing our experience without reacting. Most simply, mindfulness was well defined by Dr. Kabat-Zinn as:
‘Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’
The practice of mindfulness meditation typically consists of initially directing attention to a specific focus, such as the breath, a sensation, a feeling, or other attention ‘anchor’. As one practices, it becomes apparent that the mind will repeatedly drift off the chosen ‘anchor’ into spontaneously arising thoughts, memories, feelings, or images. Upon noticing this drift, the practitioner brings his/ her attention back repeatedly to the anchor. The intent is not to get rid of thoughts, feelings, or sensations. Rather, it is to cultivate a clearer awareness of direct moment to moment experience with acceptance and a kindly curiosity which is not obscured by judgments about the experience. Noticing whatever arises with a growing degree of acceptance and non-judgment leads to increased clarity and stability of attention and may lead to reduced reactivity in the body’s physiological stress response.
There is now 30 years of research on mindfulness practices and its benefits on various fields such as stress reduction (MBSR), medicine, psychology (MBCT, DBT), and more recently, due to increase problems with our youth, in schools, education, youth and social-emotional learning.
Based on several studies where mindfulness was brought into schools both for elementary school kids and adolescents, the top benefits of Mindfulness as practiced in many states in the US and several countries in Europe are:
- Better Focus and Concentration
- Increased sense of Self and Calm
- Decreased Stress and Anxiety
- Improved Impulse Control
- Increased Self-Awareness
- Skillful responses to Difficult Emotions
- Increased Empathy and Understanding of Others
- Development of Natural Conflict Resolution Skills
Neuroscience offers insight into how and why mindfulness training may offer such support. Expanding interest in the plasticity of the brain, the brain’s ability to produce new neurons and neural connections across the lifespan, has prompted an exponential increase in cognitive and affective neuroscience research. This research has served as a back-drop to neuroscientific studies of the effects of mindfulness training on brain activity and higher cortical functions.
While the discipline is grounded in attention and awareness, its researched effects are wide-ranging and involve measurable physiological and psychological benefits through a reduction in stress physiology and through measurable changes in the function and structure of diverse areas of the brain. The brain regions that are impacted by mindfulness training are implicated in executive function and the regulation of emotions and behavior. Executive functioning is an umbrella term for cognitive processes such as planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, mental flexibility, multi-tasking, and the initiation and monitoring of actions.
In essence, evidence based research is indicating that mindfulness training fosters enhanced resilience and more optimal brain functions in adults.
Mindfulness and the Brain:
By intentionally paying attention, we engage the hippocampus. We bring information and experience into our consciously accessible memory, to be encoded (stored) in varied areas of the brain.
The reticular activating system (RAS) in the brainstem chooses what information to send to the limbic system and cortex, and what information to block. The RAS’s job is to sift out the vast majority of the infinite number of stimulants we’re exposed to every day, but as a result of our intention to pay attention, which originates in the prefrontal cortex and creates integration among the prefrontal cortex, limbic system and brain stem, we can become aware of perceptions that would otherwise be screened out.
These are positive chemical outcomes of the state of mindful attention. How we feel about our situation triggers the release of certain hormones and neurotransmitters. When we are in a state of relaxed attentiveness, our dopamine and oxycotin levels tends to rise. Dopamine supports motivation and curiosity, our drives to learn and remember. Oxycotin supports feelings of peacefulness and relaxation, and nurturing behavior towards others and ourselves.
Simultaneously, while this relaxed state, adrenaline and cortisol decrease. These stress hormones ready us for ‘fight/flight/freeze.’ Both the brain stem and amygdala are among the organs involved with release of these hormones. When adrenaline and cortisol are needed, they are essential for survival. But with the pressures of life today, we often live with high levels of these chemicals in our bodies, even when our lives are not in danger. These chemicals profoundly interfere with the processes of learning and remembering. In particular, they impair the function of the hippocampus, which mediates memory. Stress hormones also suppress our immune systems. The decrease of adrenaline and cortisol is a valuable outcome of mindfulness practice.
• The Prefrontal Cortex
9 Aspects of Well being that are developed through Mindfulness Practice and that depend on integrating and regulating functions of the Prefrontal Cortex via mindfulness practice:
- Bodily regulation – a state of coordination and balance between the brakes and accelerator of the nervous system. When our bodies are regulated, our level of alertness and energy is appropriate to the setting.
- Insight – ‘self-knowing awareness’. This is key to building positive social connections. Also known as ‘autonoetic consciousness,’ this function creates our memories that contain emotional texture.
- Attuned communication with others – ‘resonance.’ This involves the coordination of imput from another’s mind with the activity of our own. When we become more ‘tuned in’ to ourselves, the ability to tune in to others is enhanced.
- Empathy – builds upon insight into ourselves, and upon attuned communication with others
- Emotional Balance or regulation – emotional experience that is appropriately activated, so life has vitality and meaning.
- Fear Modulation – our ability to calm and soothe, and even unlearn our fears.
- Response Flexibility – the capacity to pause before taking action; being able to consider a variety of possible options and to choose among them.
- Intuition – access to awareness of the wisdom of the body, particularly the complex neuronal webs around the viscera, the hollow organs including the heart and the intestines. These areas constitute a separate ‘brain’ that processes information and experience, learns and makes decisions.
- Morality – taking into consideration the larger picture, imagining and acting on what is best for the larger group rather than just for ourselves – and doing this even when we are alone.
• The Amygdala
The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain and it is responsible for the Fight/Flight or Freeze response in our mind body. This function is necessary for survival but in our modern society when we do not much need to defend our lives via false threats we tend to go to that space on a daily even on hourly basis which constricts growth, healing and emotionally intelligent thinking and acting. Via research and brains scans what was discovered was that emotions can cause activation of the amygdale and the fight/flight/ freeze response but naming which is practiced during mindfulness can effectively and on will deactivate such impulses and reaction.
• The Hippocampus
The hippocampus is responsible for memory. When there is stress and the amygdala is activated the hippocampus is deactivated which inhibits both storing information and recalling information – both functions of the hippocampus.
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