Mindfulness for the reduction of anxiety, chronic pain, depression, and other conditions:
What is stress?
Stress can be defined as wanting or expecting the situations we encounter to be different than we perceive them to be. Neuroscience has shown that 90% of our brain scans our environment looking for data that validates our belief systems. So if we believe the world is dangerous and overwhelming, our brain will perceive information that validates those belief system, tuning out an data that de-values those belief system.
What is mindfulness?
In short, mindfulness is the practice of increasing conscious awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions. It is accomplished by focusing on your breath and on the body sensations you are experiencing and thoughts you are having, without judgment of those sensations and thoughts. Taken one step further, mindfulness is observing what is happening in our environment without creating stories around our judgments of what we believe to be true or untrue. So mindfulness retrains our brain to not look for data that validates our current belief system, and leaves us open to perceiving more positive experiences.
What are mindfulness activities?
Mindfulness activities include any techniques employed to attain a relaxed state and awareness of the present moment. Some examples of activities include: body relaxation, breathing practice, mental imagery, guided meditations, reiki, and body and mind awareness.
How does mindfulness help with anxiety, chronic pain, depression, and other conditions?
Current research in neuroscience shows that when individuals practice mindfulness specific neurobiological structures are activated that interact closely to constitute a process of enhanced self-regulation: enhanced attention control, improved emotion regulation, and altered self-awareness. Research also shows that amygdala activation is diminished during mindfulness activities. This is important because the amygdala is responsible for triggering the stress response. Forty-seven research trials have been done which found that participants participating in mindfulness activity programs experienced less anxiety, depression, and pain.
Essentially, mindfulness activities are successful in decreasing emotion distress and chronic pain because the areas of the brain responsible for activating emotions and pain are altered and new neural pathways are created. Specifically:
The region of the brain associated with awareness of how we think is activated and an individual is able to have greater awareness of limiting thoughts and belief systems. This awareness enables them to be better able to consciously choose other ways of thinking.
In response to changing belief systems, the region of the brain responsible for processing tactile information such as touch, pain, and body awareness is activated and the neural pathways that send signals of pain are decreased and new neural pathways are created leading to less pain receptors being triggered.
The region of the brain responsible for creating memories is activated and new memories are formed supporting the shifting belief systems of the individual so that they are better able to perceive positive experiences rather than negative experiences.
The region of the brain responsible for self-regulation, emotional regulation, attention, and self-control is stimulated and calmed so that the individual is better able to respond to the environmental triggers with increased self-awareness leading to better emotion regulation, ability to focus and concentrate, and increased control of behavioral responses to triggering stimuli.
The area of the brain that tracts the communication between the right and left hemisphere is activated leading to increased communication between both hemisphere. These leads to more accurate interpretation of environmental stimuli and bodily sensations which leads to more adaptive emotional responses and less reactive, self-defeating thoughts.