Alice Coffey, Staff Writer
Photo//Sabine_999 via Pixabay
Mindfulness meditation is not only a practice, it is an art. It takes time, energy, and patience to master. But if done enough, the benefits reaped would not only improve your physical health, but also mental health as well, which is something that is so prevalent in this day and age (Mindfulness meditation: A research proven way to reduce stress, 2019).
Mindfulness meditation includes two components: attention to the present moment and an attitude that's open and accepting of this moment as it is (Kober, 2019). In other words, it involves paying attention purposefully, and without judgment.
This practice consists of a system that is primarily aimed at the “cessation of suffering” or enduring happiness (Kober, 2019). Although sounding relatively ‘easy’ to the common person, so many of us are so easily distracted, and often let our mind wander during any and every activity, thus making us feel unhappy.
In fact, the average American adult spends 47% of his/her waking life not paying attention to what they are doing (thus, letting their mind wander). These Americans reported being significantly less happy- hence, “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind” (Davidson, 2019).
Being mindful however, does the opposite. It allows you to feel happier and leave more time and energy to act wisely and make good decisions, thus responding to the world rather than reacting to it (improving mental health), and of course increasing attention span (Kober, 2019). You may be wondering how exactly mindfulness can do this. I am about to tell you.
Mindfulness meditation improves the health of our minds through a number of ways. We must first know what constitutes a healthy mind, however. Davidson explains how there are four pillars of a ‘healthy mind.’ These pillars consist of awareness, connection, insight, and purpose.
Attention is the capacity to focus our attention, resist distraction, and increase meta awareness overall (know what our minds are doing), all things crucial for real (positive) transformation of the mind to occur. Connection consists of the qualities that nurture harmonious interpersonal relationships (appreciation, kindness, positive outlook, etc). Insights are the thoughts we have about ourselves, an inner ‘narrative’ if you will, that consists of a constellation of thoughts. It is the seeing of our narratives as solely a constellation of thoughts that thus fosters more breathing room, and increased well being. Finally, purpose is having a sense that our life is headed in a particular direction (meaningful).
It is through harnessing the power of neuroplasticity via mindfulness meditation that enables such positive, healthy change throughout our brain. Davidson noted how just two weeks of compassion training for 30 minutes a day can change the circuit involved in the prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum, two components very important for processing and experiencing positive emotions. This circuitry change thus gets strengthened after this short amount of systematic practice of compassion training which is just “remarkable,” says Davidson. In essence, it does not take much to change the mechanisms in our brain.
Finally, Dr. Zeidan (2021) noted that, “just twenty minutes of meditation practice can significantly reduce perceived stress, tension, depression, confusion, fatigue, and improve total mood.” In fact, one 20-minute meditation session can reduce (state) anxiety by 22%, thus showing “you don’t need to be a monk to reap the benefits of these practices.” Zeidan also notes that mindfulness meditation as well as compassion-based practices can help reduce the feelings of loneliness and increase the feelings of social connectedness despite not being around people or participating in group settings. Thus, simply self-regulating your feelings by just sitting for a few minutes a day can dramatically improve the way that you feel, and allow for better coping skills.
Now in terms of how meditation alters brain functioning, Kober notes how experienced meditators reported a lower amount of mind wandering and thus, less activity/connectivity in the brain’s default network/mechanisms. In fact, even after three days of intensive mindfulness training, there were already some changes to the default mode network that were similar to experienced meditators (Kober, 2019).
Continuing, there was a noticeable reduction in the inflammation marker of the brain related to disease risk in an experimental group undergoing mindfulness training. The control group (who didn’t do intensive mindfulness training) showed an increase in the inflammation marker related to disease risk. This was expected, as the default network is responsible for such inflammation (Kober, 2019). In another experiment that Kober conducted, those who meditated for the first time were faster and more accurate in a particular brain related activity. In other words, the mediated (experimental) group’s brains were more attuned to tasks allowing them to perform better on activities involving any type of brain power. Kober then concludes that mindfulness training changes the brain, emotional experience, and body in a way that’s more resilient to stress and disease.
Finally, Zeidan notes when someone is stressed/anxious, there is an inability of a part of the brain that controls thoughts and emotions to work. So, the brain regions in the front (prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) are deactivated (inability to govern/control thoughts, worries, and anxieties). Yet another brain region is highly activated during anxiety and stress. This region is known as the posterior cingulate cortex which is associated with mind wandering or, “self-referential thought processes” (Zeidan, 2021).
However, mediation training significantly reduced anxiety because of a greater activation in these exact brain regions just mentioned. In other words, higher activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex predicted reductions in anxiety. Continuing, the anterior cingulate cortex has greater connectivity with the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with greater stress (fear, negative emotions, and emotions in general). If the anterior cingulate cortex processes ongoing states of conflict, and the amygdala is associated with processing fear, negative emotions, and emotions in general, the greater connectivity there is, the greater stress there is. However, again, mindfulness mediated reduced this stress by ‘de-coupling’ this connectivity (Zeidan, 2021). The emotional centers of the brain then (because of mindfulness meditation), become less hyperactive and more controlled by the prefrontal regions, thus leading to lower feelings of stress and anxiety (Zeidan, 2021).
I definitely believe that it would be incredibly worth it and beneficial to try mindfulness meditation for a week or more. As explained above, there are so many different benefits that can be reaped such as reduced stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, distractibility and increased sense of happiness, connectedness, insight, and purpose.
Overall, mindfulness meditation, although easier said than done, is an incredibly powerful tool that we can all use to completely transform our lives for the better. The best part about it is that it’s free and natural. So many treatments involve expensive care, prescription meds, and complicated therapy. This practice however, is just the opposite. It is free, natural, and accessible for all. Why would you not try it?
Davidson, Richard J. “How Mindfulness Changes the Emotional Life of Our Brains: Richard J. Davidson: Tedxsanfrancisco.” Richard J. Davidson: How Mindfulness Changes the Emotional Life of Our Brains | Richard J. Davidson | TEDxSanFrancisco | TED Talk, https://www.ted.com/talks/richard_j_davidson_how_mindfulness_changes_the_emotional_life_of_our_brains_jan_2019?language=en.
“Mindfulness Meditation: A Research-Proven Way to Reduce Stress.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness/meditation.
“The Neuroscience of Meditation, Mindfulness, and Compassion.” YouTube, YouTube, 3 Apr. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ca0uLyRTrQ0.
“The Science behind Mindfulness as a Tool for Happiness | Hedy Kober.” YouTube, YouTube, 26 Feb. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOIE5xFuWL4.