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Train Your Brain with Mindfulness

We used to think that the brain stopped growing and developing in early adulthood, and then after that it was supposedly all downhill from there.  We now know from neuroscience research that the brain continues to change in response to experiences we have throughout our life span; a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.  Research shows that the brain can be developed and trained in the same way we build our muscles in the gym. There is a growing body of evidence that the practice of mindfulness meditation changes the brain in ways that significantly improve health and overall wellbeing.

What is mindfulness?

Whether our mindfulness practice focuses on the breath, sounds, thoughts, or emotions, the focus is on being attentive to what we are experiencing in the moment. It is normal for attention to wander while meditating and the focus is to simply become aware of when the mind wanders and to guide the attention back to the present. The more you practice doing this, the more you will learn about the nature of the mind, because you’ll begin to notice more of everything, including when the mind wonders and overall distractedness.

Meditators become better at not only noticing what is happening in the moment, but directing their focus and attention.  An Emory University study found that experienced meditators were much better at dropping extraneous thought and focusing on the matter at hand when bombarded by stimuli while performing a computer task.

How does Mindfulness Change the Brain?

In the past 15 years, there has been an explosion of research into the effects of mindfulness practice which suggests that a regular meditation practice can cause beneficial structural changes to the brain in as little as eight weeks. In addition, there is evidence that new neural pathways are developed and brain connections are strengthened with mindfulness practice.  Some of the benefits associated with these changes include a strengthened immune system, decreased rumination and reactivity, greater self-awareness, and improvements in attention and focus, problem-solving, emotion regulation, empathy, memory and learning.

Mindfulness and Stress

The research on the effects of meditation on the brain indicates that it remodels the brain to strengthen the qualities that are essential to happiness, health and wellbeing as well as a sense of resilience, equanimity, calm, and a compassionate connection to others. As a result, when we practice mindfulness on a regular basis we become less reactive, more grounded, more aware of our experiences and the ways that we relate to them, and we are able to make conscious choices about how to respond. We are less likely to reach for food or a drink while on automatic pilot and better able to make healthy choices to meet our needs because we are noticing early on the emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations that trigger us. We are then able to respond in more effective and conscious ways and give ourselves what we really need rather than mindlessly seeking escape or comfort.

 

References

Davis, D. M. & Hayes, J.A. (2011). What are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research. American Psychological Association.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990) Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. New York: Dell.

Ricard, M., Lutz, A., Davidson, R. (2014). Mind of the Meditator. Scientific American.

Related posts: 5 Tips for Breaking Free from Mindless EatingDo You Eat on Autopilot?

About Geri Nelson, MSW, LCSW

Geri is a licensed clinical social worker serving as Interim Clinical Director but provides individual and couples therapy. She has a particular interest in mindfulness training, the mind/body connection, meditation, yoga, positive psychology, and cognitive behavioral approaches to binge eating/emotional eating, depression and anxiety. Geri has been studying yoga for 18 years and teaches yoga as part of the Bridge Program for binge and emotional eating. She also facilitates support groups, offers aftercare support and teaches classes on mindful living and eating, positivity, body image, grief and the use of cognitive behavioral strategies for improved health, wellbeing and weight management.

Geri received her undergraduate degree from Colby College and a Masters in Social Work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has over 35 years of experience working in the field of social work. Geri has received training in mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, the treatment of panic and agoraphobia, eating disorder treatment (with a primary focus on binge eating), couples counseling (including working with the LGBTQ community), hoarding disorder, motivational interviewing and the use of yoga in clinical work. She previously held a faculty position at Campbell University where she taught courses on human behavior and social work practice, and directed the field education program. She served as a field advisor to graduate social work students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and taught a field seminar for students completing their clinical internships. She has held several clinical and supervisory positions in a variety of mental health settings which addressed a broad range on mental health issues, including eating disorders, depression, anxiety and trauma. Geri has been with Structure House since 2004.

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