The Neurology of Mindfulness and Meditation by Shirley Davis | Jul 17, 2023 | CPTSD, Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness and meditation is indeed healthy for our minds, but how? What part does the brain have to do with mindfulness and meditation?
In this piece, we shall discover together the neuroscience of mindfulness and meditation and ways you can use them to enhance your life. But first, we need to examine the brain and how it works.
The Power of Neuroplasticity
Did you know our brains are malleable? One can shape one’s brain through the experiences we have in day-to-day life. You can shape your brain to experience a wide range of emotions, with most of those experiences being negative if we allow it to be so.
Neuroplasticity describes the brain’s ability to evolve in response to stimuli and involves creating and building new neuro pathways and reorganizing existing neural networks. Neuroplasticity ranges from brain damage caused by traumatic experiences to changes to the brain due to learning new material.
We are in control of how we use neuroplasticity, even if we aren’t aware of that fact. Put simply, whatever you think about most, anger, fear, or self-disgust, your brain will take shape to accommodate. One can imagine how shaping your brain to only think of how ugly or useless one is compared to focusing on gratitude and strength.
You can learn to shape your mind to function better.
The Limbic System on Mindfulness and Meditation
The limbic system comprises the amygdala and the hippocampus (plus other organs not spoken of here).
The hippocampus is responsible for consolidating and filing memories in the brain for future recall. The connections formed in the hippocampus pair memories with the senses and are neuroplasticity’s base.
The amygdala has many functions, but the one pertinent here is its responsibility to watch for danger and, when something is detected, to send stress signals to indicate the need to be ready for the fight/fight/freeze response.
Complex trauma in childhood changes the brain dramatically by damaging the hippocampus and amygdala, so survivors are always on guard and ready to react with the fight/flight/freeze response.
If the senses of a survivor are triggered by something that reminds them of the trauma, they experience a panic attack which is the brain flooding the body with stress hormones.
Today, as adults, there is no real danger, but the amygdala doesn’t understand that because it has been changed by stress hormones and is hyper-focused on watching out and reacting to perceived danger.
It has been documented that mindfulness and meditation can actually shrink the amygdala and hippocampus to normal size, slowing down their hyper-focus on danger.
The core structures of the limbic system are the amygdala, the hippocampus we’ve already discussed, and the hypothalamus. In times of stress or fear, these parts of the brain work together to keep the person safe.
For instance, you are cleaning a closet and notice a spider.
The hippocampus, the brain region responsible for memories, remembers that you fear spiders. Suddenly, the amygdala, because it is the brain’s fear center, shoots chemical messages to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus causes the adrenal gland to release cortisol to enable you to either run away or become aggressive toward the spider and kill it (fight or flight).
The body reacts to the stress hormones released into your bloodstream with increased blood pressure, anxiety, and a sense of impending doom. Sound familiar? The thought is that the body habituates to the stress hormones flooding through it and, seeing danger around every corner, is constantly in a state of alert or hypervigilance.
How Mindfulness and Meditation Help
Other brain regions are changed by practicing mindfulness and meditation, including the prefrontal cortex and gray matter. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for higher brain functions such as concentration, decision-making, and self-awareness.
Meditation can cause thickening of the prefrontal cortex, and gray matter is increased in volume, aiding a person to think more clearly in all situations, including those that remind them of past trauma.
Although the research is still out on how exactly mindfulness works, it is well-documented that people who practice mindfulness and meditation have slower brain waves during their exercises compared to control subjects.
Although no one has ever attempted testing during neurosurgery on a patient who uses mindfulness and meditation daily, the observable reactions they experience say much.
Those who practice mindfulness and meditation are noticeably calmer and have fewer physical ailments than those who do not. Also, those who practiced these two exercises had better self-regulation, attention control, and self-awareness.
There are many different ways to become mindful. For the purpose of this piece, we shall concentrate on three of them.
Breathing for two minutes. Even on your busiest days, you can practice mindfulness for two minutes. Following are the simple steps to follow:
Settle in and get comfortable. If you can, close your eyes and try to relax. Feel about your body to find areas of tightness and actively relax them. Notice how your body touches the chair you are sitting in and feel the weight of your body as gravity acts upon it. Inhale slowly through the nose and out through pursed lips for a few minutes, and notice how the stress slips away and you feel calmer.
Practice gratitude. Gratitude is known to improve happiness and promote good health.
Start small and simple and notice the moment you are living. Say to yourself that you are grateful that you can see, hear, and walk; if you cannot do those things, be grateful that you can think clearly.
First, get comfortable and tune into your body. Feel the sensation of your breathing and how your feet feel on the ground. Allow sounds to pass through and around you without labeling or judging them. Don’t try to interpret the sounds you hear; just allow them to be. When thoughts intrude into your mindfulness exercise, treat them like you did the sounds, and don’t try to interpret them.
There are hundreds of meditation exercises you can perform that will give you a boost and allow you to regain control over your emotions and time.
Below you will find three visualization meditation exercises comprised of forming pictures in your mind and using your imagination much like you did as a child. For visualization, you must close your eyes and imagine yourself somewhere you feel happy.
Imagine yourself on a beach.
Start by closing your eyes and take 3-4 deep breaths. Now imagine you are walking on a warm and sandy beach. Use all your senses to see, hear, and feel the sun on your skin, the sounds of the waves breaking on the shore, and the blueness of the water. As you walk, pick up shells and taste the salty water on your tongue. Immerse yourself in your experience on the beach.
Picture a blank screen.
To help clear your mind, imagine you are staring at a blank white screen. When you notice thoughts intruding, see yourself erasing that thought and return to looking at the screen. Allow your mind to go blank with no resistance and feel the relaxation taking you over.
Take a walk in the forest.
Like walking on the beach, this is an excellent exercise for stress relief. Imagine yourself in a friendly green forest, noticing the crack of the small branches under your feet and the sounds of nature. Notice the smells that surround you, like the smell of wildflowers or birds chirping in the trees.
The more you practice mindfulness and meditation, the easier it will be as you learn to tune out the world and pay attention to your emotions and the need to calm yourself.
Ending Our Time Together
It is clear that mindfulness and meditation are different exercises that can work in tandem to help a person’s brain work better and more efficiently. A ‘muddled brain’ aka ‘brain fog’ is a direct result of the brain of a survivor trying desperately to understand the world around them because trauma has removed clarity from them.
Mindfulness and meditation are great tools in the arsenal of anyone struggling to overcome complex post-traumatic stress disorder caused by repeated traumatic experiences, most notably in childhood.
Some regions of the brains of people who have survived repeated trauma have enlarged to handle stress. Mindfulness and meditation actively shrink these brain regions, the amygdala, and hippocampus, making them less over-reactive to triggers they encounter in their environment.
Mindfulness and meditation exercises can relieve stress and allow you to tune into the power of your mind. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to try it and see how relaxed I can get.
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Thich Nhat Hang.
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”
– Amit Ray.