Updated: May 2, 2019
If you’ve ever wanted to know exactly how mindfulness can benefit mental health, then you need to look at the neural pathways activated in the brain when someone practices mindfulness. This may seem confusing if you don't know much about the brain, but keep reading below for a simplified explanation of how mindfulness actually works. Check out the patterns mindful awareness takes as it travels through your brain and exactly how these areas affect your mental well-being!
First… What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is being aware and non-judgmental of the emotions and bodily sensations you feel in the present moment. It’s relatively easy, all you have to do is pay attention to what emotions you currently feel, and try not to worry about the past or stress about the future! Stay in the moment, focus on what you feel (without being evaluative or judgmental), and just notice it- acknowledge it.
Many people practice Mindful Meditation, or go through a process called Mindfulness Training. Mindfulness is well-known for reducing stress, improving emotion regulation, and preparing emotional intelligence and response for future emotional events/stimuli! It really is the full package when it comes to well-being; many people practice mindful yoga, or just focus on being present while completing yoga, and have great mental and physical outcomes!
5 Ways Mindfulness Affects Your Brain
In order to be fully convinced, I had to research exactly (scientifically) how mindfulness was having an impact on well-being, and where specifically in the brain was it impacting? I was looking for empirical evidence, and what I found definitely supported the mindfulness “craze”. Keep reading below to find out how mindfulness impacts the brain!
1. Threat Reduction
A study conducted by Farb et al. (2010), found that Mindfulness Training actually showed up on neural imaging scans as having an effect on the way we perceive new events and form emotional responses. Before, studies supported the idea that emotions were threats to our well-being, and must be kept under tight control, and regulated rigorously. However now studies, specifically this study on mindfulness, shows that observing your emotions as objects to learn from or just acknowledge, actually improves emotion regulation and reactivity to new events in the future!
In the same study (Farb et al. 2010), researchers found that metacognition, or thinking about/paying attention to your own thoughts/thinking patterns, was developed as a skill by practicing mindfulness, and this allows you to see your emotions more objectively from a detached perspective (viewing your thoughts as though you were someone else, non-judgmentally), rather than getting jumbled and confused in the midst of them. An excerpt from the study, “…the reduced deactivation in the insula during dysphoric challenge [sadness] may therefore be associated with increased interoceptive awareness [metacognition].”
Another way this study (Farb et al., 2010) focuses on the impacts of mindfulness training on the brain, is its mention of reduction in depressive-symptoms. Clinical depression is a symptom of a chemical imbalance in the brain, usually being affected by the neurotransmitters serotonin or dopamine, although environmental factors are at play. Rumination (“overthinking”) is a common symptom from depression, and this can be stopped in its tracks with the practice of mindfulness when someone is being exposed to something sad! This is awesome news for therapists because mindfulness definitely seems to aid in the reduction of depression. Symptoms of depression are listed below.
Signs & Symptoms of Depression (information from NIMH)
Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
Decreased energy or fatigue
Moving or talking more slowly
Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
Appetite and/or weight changes
Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment
4. Emotion Suppression Comparison
In another study, Murakami et al. (2015) compared the neural pathways of opposing emotion regulation strategies: mindfulness and emotion suppression. Emotion suppression means you are avoiding the emotion that you feel, usually by pushing it away and pretending you don’t feel it. I was going to try to summarize in my own words what they found, but it’s better if you read it from them:
“However, the different strategies produce distinct patterns of peripheral emotional responses, such that mindfulness is associated with para-sympathetic activity whereas suppression is correlated with sympathetic activity. This pattern could be due to processing differences between the two strategies, which would be expected to reflect different neural bases underlying the two strategies.”
Let me explain now what para-sympathetic and sympathetic mean:
Para-sympathetic: the part of your body that works to keep you at rest, and to help digest food while you’re not in “survival-mode”
Sympathetic: the part of your body that helps recognize stress or danger by going into “fight-or-flight” mode, and your body is usually tense, and digestion slows or stops
This means mindfulness helps with stress reduction! You may also like 15 Essential Oils That Ease Anxiety and Stress.
5. Path of Least Resistance
The path mindfulness takes in the brain, compared to the path suppression takes, is one that requires less cognitive effort. This is good for brain functioning and development, because a tired brain isn’t going to work its best or grow to be its brightest! This is also good for long-term results, because an easy path will be more likely to stick in your memory, and you may begin to practice mindfulness without even having to try (Murakami et al., 2015).
Now you can be fully convinced of the benefits of mindfulness. By knowing it’s direct impact on brain functions, you can be reassured of it’s validity towards improving mental health and wellness.
If you’d like to read more on mindfulness and how to practice it, check out a previous post: The Mindfulness ‘Craze’ and Mental Health.
Scientific Journal References (Studies):
Farb, N. A., Anderson, A. K., Mayberg, H., Bean, J., McKeon, D., & Segal, Z. V. (2010). Minding one’s emotions: Mindfulness training alters the neural expression of sadness. Emotion, 10(1), 25-33. doi:10.1037/a0017151.supp
Murakami, H., Katsunuma, R., Oba, K., Terasawa, Y., Motomura, Y., Mishima, K., &
Moriguchi, Y. (2015). Neural networks for mindfulness and emotion suppression. Plos One, 10(6). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128005
This post was originally featured as a guest post on Be The Happy You blog!
Be The Happy You
Meet Jordan McLean!
She is an awesome mental health and lifestyle blogger, and she shares personal experiences as well to help others in their mental health journeys and recoveries.
She graduated with a BA in Psychology (if you're a Psych major too comment below and let's be friends!), and minored in Studio Art.
Jordan and I have been collaborating as mental health bloggers, and I sent her this post originally as a guest post, but wanted my readers to get this information as well! Shout-out to her and all the good she's doing in the mental health community!