If there was a way to reduce stress in your everyday life, would you do it? A way that didn’t involve therapy, medications, or moving to a remote homestead hundreds of miles from the nearest human being? Chances are you might be just a little be curious–I know I was. The good news is there is a way to control your reactions to stressful situations on a daily basis. Mindfulness training has been known to change how we view the everyday world. And that changes how we deal with stress. It helps us make decisions about problems and challenges with less emotion and more reflection. A mindfulness practice actually helps us change how we see the world and our place in it.
Most people think of mindfulness as another word for meditation– and in one sense, they are correct. Meditation is one of the easiest ways to bring mindfulness into our lives. However, mindfulness is really about being aware of the present moment. We spend a great deal of time each day distracted from what is going on around us. Most of our thoughts focus on the future. When is the next meeting? What will the commute be like? Can I get dinner on the table in time? When can I take the next vacation? If not the future, we dwell on the past. We think about last week’s run in with a co-worker or a conversation with our partner. The one thing most of us don’t focus on is what is happening to us at the present moment and how that moment is affecting us.
We tend to think of stress as something inherent in today’s society. And it’s true, stressful situations surround us all the time. But here’s the thing–situations don’t cause stress. Stress is caused by our reaction to situations. So if you could alter your brain to react to a perceived danger in a less primal, more intellectual way and thereby create a calmer, more thoughtful, and more peaceful life, why wouldn’t you try it? Especially if there is now scientific proof that mindfulness changes the way our brains work.
As you know, the brain is an immensely complicated organ, performing thousands of functions simultaneously at any given moment. Each section of the brain has a specific task, and these sections have been performing these tasks pretty much the same way for the last few thousand years. The only problem with that is we don’t face the same daily threats as we used to. Our world has changed, but the way the brain works in relation to the world has not.
Unless you throw a mindfulness practice into the mix.
The section of the brain that deals with stress is called the amygdala. It is responsible for the “fight or flight” reaction we feel when confronted with a perceived danger. In today’s world, the danger is more likely to be a difficult co-worker than a rogue elephant charging toward us, but the brain doesn’t know the difference. All it senses is danger, and it starts to rev up the body’s natural response to stress. This is what the amygdala is supposed to do, and it’s very good at its job.
Here is the amazing thing. Studies show after an eight week mindfulness meditation practice, the amygdalae of the participants actually appear to shrink. In essence, the part of the brain responsible for causing primal, emotional reactions to perceived stressful situations weakens and lessens. Conversely, the pre-frontal cortex–that part of the brain associated with higher functions such as awareness, decision-making, and concentration–actually becomes thicker. In other words, a mindfulness practice allows us to exercise the higher functioning portion of our brain to deal with challenges and perceived threats in a more thoughtful way. We don’t have to rely on basic, emotional knee-jerk reactions.
While the change in size of the different parts of the brain is important, it is not the only factor that determines a calmer, less stressed-out lifestyle. The connectivity between these regions, or how often they are activated together, is also vital. With a consistent mindfulness practice, the amygdala seems to lose connections with the rest of the brain, while connections between areas involved in concentration and focus seem to get stronger. With stronger connections to focus and attention, we are able to invoke a more thoughtful response to potentially stressful situations.
So how long does it take to make all these changes in the brain happen? Will you have to commit to years worth of sitting on pillows, wearing beads, and contemplating your breath? The answer is no. There are many ways to practice mindfulness–meditation is just one. And you don’t have to commit to hours everyday, either. That’s another good thing, since most of us don’t have that much time to devote to anything new. Just five to ten minutes a day can make a substantial difference in how your brain functions. However, consistency is the key. Mindfulness should be practiced everyday, or almost everyday. You wouldn’t go to the gym once a week and expect to win a body-building competition. The same is true with a mindfulness practice. As with so much in life, small measures practiced consistently over time creates a major change.
If you are tired of being constantly anxious and stressed-out, why not give mindfulness a try? What do you have to lose, except perhaps part of your amygdala? You may even create a calmer, more peaceful lifestyle filled with more satisfaction, less chronic illness, and less anxiety. In my book, that is definitely worth ten minutes a day.
A Mindful Nation, by Tim Ryan, published by Hay House, Inc, 2012