What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do To Your Brain?

A balance in life comes from how we cope with its stresses. When we practice mindfulness meditation, we have far more control over how we respond to challenges in our lives.

Meditation is the mental training that improves your ability to embrace and control your emotions so that they do not overwhelm you. There are many ways to meditate, and mindfulness meditation is one of them.

Ordinarily, most people do not know what their minds are doing. They do many activities they are not aware of. Mindfulness is bringing awareness to what our minds are actually doing.

what is mindfulness meditation in psychology
What is mindfulness meditation in psychology?

What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do To Your Brain?

Mindfulness meditation has long-lasting effects at the brain level.

Mindfulness meditation strengthens the brain’s connection between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and the Default Mode Network (DMN). As a result, the better-supported dlPFC can now better control the mind’s impulsive, fight-or-flight reactions. Brain scans of expert meditators show that their DMNs are dialed down, whereas people with depression or anxiety have more active DMNs.

Research by Sarah Lazar and her associates found that the region of the brain associated with emotional reactivity and fear – the amygdala – had decreased gray matter density in participants of an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

Now, let’s take a brief look into how mindfulness meditation can impact our brain’s DMN and dlPFC.

Trying to settle into a mindful state is difficult at first, we all know. The main reason is that the mind begins to wander within a few seconds of intensely focusing on something. Scientists reveal that when the mind wanders, it is usually doing the “time-traveling,” that is, calling up a memory from the past or imagining an event in the future.

The wandering mind is riddled with worries, regrets, fears, desires, and overthinking. Some Buddhists call it the “monkey mind.” Scientists called it the Default Mode Network (DMN).

The mind’s very nature is mind-wandering. Normally, our mind cannot stay focused for long unless it finds in-depth interest in the activity, gets forced into it, or has been trained to do so.

The awareness that your mind has wandered, that it has distracted from your point of focus (say, your breath), is itself part of mindfulness practice.

Whenever a mindfulness meditator notices that their mind has wandered, they take it as a moment of awakening. When they redirect their attention to their breath again, at that moment, a part of their brain lights up in the fMRI scans—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC).

Can Mindfulness Meditation Reduce Stress?

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to successfully reduce stress levels. It has been studied and proven by Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

MBSR is an 8-week group program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s that includes mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga. It was designed to treat patients struggling with life’s challenges and physical or mental illnesses.

Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR meditation therapy, though originally designed for the management of stress, has been successfully used to benefit a wide range of conditions — depression, anxiety, chronic pain, cancer, diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure, HIV/AIDS, skin diseases, and immune disorders.

A study (The effects of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program, 2014) by Linda Carlson and Zenovia Ursuliak found cancer patients who took a 7-week MBSR training had less mood disturbance and fewer stress symptoms, and these improvements remained at a 6-month follow-up.

The practice of MBSR has been found to improve patients’ coping with prostate cancer, and to decrease stress and mood disturbances in a group of patients with mixed types of cancer. Shifts in immune system markers (reduction in T1 pro-inflammatory lymphocyte to T2 anti-inflammatory lymphocyte ratio) have also been found in patients with breast cancer and patients with prostate cancer following an 8-week MBSR program.

— Lynette Pujol and Daniel Monti (Pujol & Monti, 2007)

A 2018 study showed that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) reduces the severity and increases the odds of remission of symptoms in patients with depression. It is more effective for depressed patients who have high levels of overthinking.

how to PRACTICE mindfulness steps

How Does The Brain Benefit From Mindfulness Meditation?

An intentional and sustained practice of mindfulness meditation helps us cultivate a sense of momentary awareness in daily life. It helps us stop worrying and overthinking, de-stress our minds, and become more grounded in our own lives.

Some notable benefits of mindfulness meditation are less stress-related illnesses, better sleeping habits, lower blood pressure, better immune system, more energy, better pain management, better decision-making ability, and greater resilience when faced with adversity.

In a study on the effects of drug-free therapies on cancer patients, Lynette Pujol and Daniel Monti found those trained in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program had fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, and confusion.

They got less irritable, had more vigor, and could think in a more organized way. They also had fewer complaints related to the heart, lungs, and gut.

Being mindful is parking your mind in the present moment, pulling it away from both the past and the future.

Is Mindfulness Meditation A Secular Practice?

Mindfulness meditation is a secular practice that is not associated with any religion, cult, or sect. Anyone of any faith can practice it to achieve mental and physical well-being. It does not require the recitation of any religious mantra or chant.

People have used mindfulness techniques for thousands of years to build awareness into the present moment with calm acceptance – to deal with life’s stresses.

Around 500 BCE, the Buddha studied some of the oldest forms of meditation from early Hinduism and modified them into a new technique called Satipaṭṭhāna Meditation. Subsequently, several Buddhist teachers systematically codified the practice into mindfulness meditation.

The goal of mindfulness meditation was not to get closer to the divine or to empty your mind, but to pay attention to the present.

Satipaṭṭhāna, from Pali/Sanskrit smṛtyupasthāna, is a compound term that can be parsed as: “sati” meaning “attention” and “upa” meaning inside, and “thana” meaning “to keep.” So, together, they mean “to keep your attention inside.”

According to the Theravada Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, sati-upaṭṭhāna means “the presence of mindfulness” or “the arousing of mindfulness.”

How can you practice mindfulness without meditation?

Since mindfulness is the nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, we can be mindful in many ways without needing to meditate.
Here are 7 ways to practice mindfulness without meditation:
1. Mindful breathing
2. Mindful walking
3. Mindful eating
4. Mindful observation
5. Mindful awareness
6. Mindful listening
7. Mindful savoring

What is meditation?

Meditation is a mind-body practice that increases mental calmness and physical relaxation, improves psychological balance, helps cope better with illness, and enhances overall health and well-being. Two main types of meditation are 1. concentrative meditation, and 2. mindfulness meditation. All forms of meditation aim to increase self-awareness and meaningfulness in life.

How To Do The Breath Mindfulness?

All mindfulness is not meditation, and all meditation is not mindfulness. One of the ways of practicing mindfulness is breath mindfulness or Ānāpānasati. Here’s how to do it:

  • Find a secluded space, sit down with your back erect, and close your eyes.
  • Take a few slow and deep breaths and release the stresses you hold in your body.
  • Bring your full attention to your incoming and outgoing breath. As you breathe in and breathe out, mentally follow the path of the breath from the nose to your chest.
  • Withdraw your focus from outward stimuli and internal thoughts about the past or future. Allow your entire focus to be on counting your in-breaths and out-breaths.
  • If your mind wanders away from your breath, gently bring it back and restart the count. After some time, let yourself wake up from the mindfulness state.
5-Minute Meditation You Can Do Anywhere
5-Minute Mindfulness Meditation

Final Words

Being mindful means you are paying attention to and conscious of what’s happening around you and inside you. While you are curiously aware of your passing thoughts, you must make sure you also examine them with no judgment and let go of them.

All of us can practice mindfulness and learn to become more present. All we have to do is pay close attention to the present moment and encourage ourselves to be with what exists in the now and here.

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Click to find an easy, beginner’s guide (free PDF) for practicing mindfulness meditation.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, mindfulness, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).

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