The evidence just keeps on coming! Investing just a few minutes every day in your mindfulness practice can give you the edge when it comes to performance, stress management, and even pain relief!
We now know that our brains are plastic – in other words the brain grows and changes depending on how you use it. This has led to a whole new field of enquiry known as neuroplasticity, and mindfulness interventions have been shown to have some quite remarkable effects on the structure of our brains, in relatively short periods of time.
MRI scans show that after just an eight-week course of mindfulness practice (such as MBSR or MBCT) the brain’s fight or flight centre, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the limbic brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. In other words, it is the body’s alarm system.
Normally the amygdala functions really well, but the more stressed we become, the more sensitive the amygdala becomes to perceived signs of danger. After continued periods of high-stress the amygdala will habitually set the sirens blaring when realistically that reaction is not needed, or helpful. Sustained stress is known to be neurotoxic, which means that it kills brain cells, but stress has the opposite effect on the amygdala which just grows bigger and more sensitive, eventually leaving us on continuous high-alert. This describes one way that anxiety might become a chronic condition, rather than a short-term reaction.
With mindfulness practice, whilst the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex, (PFC) associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making, becomes thicker, and, the way these regions talk to each other changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain weakens, whilst the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration actually get stronger.
This is good news for everyone because it means that our more primal responses to stress over time are replaced by more thoughtful ones. There is also every reason to believe that the increases in PFC can support your performance in everything from running, diving, acting, presenting, communicating and more, because your ability to attend, concentrate and keep focus, improve. Just imagine how this would change your week at work if regular mindfulness practice was the norm.
Pain is also a source of stress for many, and once again mindfulness research has shown that the felt experience of pain can be decreased through regular meditation practice.
The research indicates that advanced meditators report feeling significantly less pain than non-meditators despite the fact that their brains show slightly more activity in areas associated with pain than the non-meditators. This does not follow the classic model of pain or pain relief and whilst being an unexpected result, lends weight to the hypothesis that experienced meditators are able to sit with their pain without adding secondary suffering. Secondary suffering is often initiated by painful thoughts such as poor me, this shouldn’t be happening, I’m so unlucky, this is the worst!
This brings to mind one of the Dalai Lama’s famous sayings:
Pain is inevitable: Suffering is optional.
This can seem to some (particularly to those in pain) like a bit of a throw-away comment, but there is a teaching here. We cannot change the stimuli, but we can change our relationship with it. By offering our pain acceptance and compassionate observation, and without adding thoughts that could turn our experience into suffering we can end up with less experience of pain overall.
So, whether you are in pain, or just looking to grow some more brain, what are you waiting for? Time to hit the zafu (that’s a meditation cushion btw)!
Neil Seligman, Mindfulness Expert and author of 100 Mindfulness Meditations.