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 sufferingwe 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)!
And, if you need a little inspiration – why not start with this guided meditation on A Mindful World. (And while you’re there, subscribe for a new practice every week!)
By Neil Seligman, The Conscious Professional
International Mindfulness Advocate and Conscious Visionary, Neil Seligman @mindfulneil is dedicated to sharing the power of mindfulness globally, transforming lives, and inspiring excellence in all aspects of human endeavour. He is the Founder of The Conscious Professional, the Author of 100 Mindfulness Meditations, and the Originator of Soul Portrait Photography.
I graduated from Bristol University in 2000 with a law degree and a qualification as a Reiki Master. I spent the next eight years as a Barrister, practising law at a leading civil set in Central London. Inspired to find deeper purpose, I spent 2009-2012 travelling, exploring my creativity through photography and performance and my connection to the meditative dimension of life that had always fascinated me.
When I founded The Conscious Professional in the Summer of 2012, suddenly the twists and turns of my career made sense.
Since then it has been a delight to watch The Conscious Professional emerge as a leading Mindfulness, Resilience and Wellbeing Consultancy in the UK and internationally. Our clients include DLA Piper, Accenture, Warner Brothers, RPC, JLL, King and Amey and we are thankful to be a Recommended Provider by the UK Legal Education and Training Group. Beyond London, the UK and Europe, I regularly speak in North America and Asia/Pacific regions.
As The Conscious Professional has grown it has been a pleasure to be featured in titles such as The Huffington Post, The Mirror, Yoga Magazine, Female First, Small Business, Best Magazine, OmYoga Magazine, Attitude, SWTV, Soul & Spirit Magazine and more.
My first book '100 Mindfulness Meditations' continues to be a favourite amongst teachers and students of mindfulness alike and it is a joy to lead retreats at Champneys, and select centres around the world.
I am a brand ambassador for Warrior Addict.