How Mindfulness Literally Changes Your Brain

Practicing mindfulness helps your brain rewire itself so that your mind functions at a much calmer level. Practicing mindfulness helps take your brain from chaos to calm in a fairly short period of time.

Neuroscience now knows that the brain is an unbelievably plastic organ that does not remain static over a lifetime. I know this is true because about 12 years ago I gave myself a traumatic brain injury following a massive drug overdose which I took during a suicide attempt. The doctors told me that however much recovery I had achieved after two years would likely be all I would gain but even now, some 12 years later, I still see improvement on a weekly basis. I attribute much of this to my daily practice of mindfulness.

Our brains were born to adapt. Scientists know that people are able to train their brains to change and that these changes can be measured. They also know that when you teach your brain to think in different ways that it causes the brain to change as well for the better.

You may wonder how these things are possible. Mindfulness plays an important role in this type of thing. But practicing mindfulness is not the same as taking a pill. It doesn’t have an immediate effect on one’s bloodstream.The changes one sees when practicing mindfulness are more subtle and a bit more gradual but they are there nevertheless.

Practicing mindfulness intentionally changes the brain’s plasticity by teaching the brain to focus on positive thoughts. By focusing on qualities such as happiness and the present moment, we learn new distress tolerance skills.

Scientists now know that practicing mindfulness for as little as thirty minutes per day has a profound effect on the brain. These changes can be seen during an MRI scan.

Scientists also now know that practicing mindfulness increase the grey matter in the brain. This occurs in the region known as the anterior cingulate cortex which is found just behind the frontal cortex of the human brain. This region is responsible for helping the person monitor the way they handle conflicts and governs the brain’s cognitive flexibility.

The second area which undergoes changes is the all important prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is where executive functions are carried out. Executive functions are things such as planning, emotion regulation and problem solving.

The hippocampus is also radically affected by the practice of mindfulness. This part of what is known as the limbic system deals with the brain’s ability to learn and generate memories. The hippocampus is highly vulnerable to stress and is the area which is usually affected the most when a person suffers from post traumatic stress disorder or depression.

And last but not least is the amygdala  a little known region which regulates the body’s fight or flight reflex. This is the place where our anxiety and fears are generated and live. The practice of daily mindfulness decreases activity in the amygdala and helps it to help the brain regulate itself better.

Any time spent practising mindfulness will start to make an important and positive difference to the structure and function of your brain. The important part is to be consistent. Start with ten minutes a day and work up from there. The benefits of mindfulness are profound, as science is only just beginning to discover.


About the Author: Dee Chan

Dee Chan was diagnosed with BPD more than 35 years ago back when the diagnosis was still fairly new and not very well understood. She has been living with it and coping with it ever since and finding ways to thrive despite it. She has been able to put it into complete remission and turned her life around completely through the practices of gratitude, forgiveness and accountability. Find out more about Dee’s work on her website bpdnomore.com.

2 Comments

Roberta J L

I have a grandson who has been diagnosed with anxiety disorder. He is 10 years old and the light of my life. How can I help him learn mindfulness? He stays with me often and I can work with him when he is with me. When he has an attack, he freezes. doesn’t speak or move. He is aware because he will look at you if you talk to him. He has also been diagnosed with ADHD and defiance disorder, which make it harder to work with him. He is very intelligent. The Dr. has put him on Concerta ( a high dose) any advice would be greatly appreciated.

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One of our rituals was in the week before Christmas, we’d go shopping and each kiddo would choose a keepsake decoration for the tree. This would forever be their decoration. To make sure we’d remember who owned what (a year is a long time!) I wrote their name and year on the box. The idea is that when they leave home, they’ll have a collection of special decorations for their own tree, plump with throwbacks (‘Oh I remember when we bought this!).

Then of course there was Christmas morning. Santa would leave a note on the table and bootprints on the front path, which smelled remarkably like talcum powder. So magical the way the snow was under the boot and never melted, even in an Australian summer! But that’s the magic of Christmas, right?!

We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year.

It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas, aside from the presents.

They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be a biggie. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with pancakes at breakfast last Christmas. (Ice-cream at breakfast?! Told you Christmas was magical!!). 

If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (remembering reindeer groceries can be so hard sometimes!)

You’d be surprised what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.

What are your Christmas rituals? Let’s share ideas in the comments.♥️
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Because sales are the best, and Christmas is the best, and helping kiddos find their brave is the very best of all! So, to celebrate the end of the year (because truly, it's been a year hasn't it), and to help you settle brave hearts for next year, or night times, or separations, or, you know, all the things, we're taking 25% off books and plushies in the Hey Sigmund shop.

There's no need to enter a code. The books and bundles are already marked with their special sale prices. You'll find them all there - plushies, books, bundles - doing shopping cartwheels, beside themselves excited about helping your young ones feel bigger than anxiety, and shimmy on to brave. 
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It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. 

Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay, and trust in your reaction if things don’t go to plan. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 
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Strong steady breathing will reverse the fight or flight physiology that causes nausea, butterflies, or sick or sore tummies during anxiety. BUT telling an anxious brain to take a strong steady breath will potentially make anxiety worse unless strong steady breathing feels familiar. Practising during calm times will make it familiar. 

During anxiety we’re dealing with their amygdala, and it wants short shallow breathing to conserve oxygen. It doesn’t want strong steady breathing and will work hard to resist this. 

An anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. A few minutes of strong steady breathing each day will set up a strong neural pathway to make strong breathing more automatic and accessible during anxiety. 

In the meantime though, you can do it for them. This is the magic of co-regulation. When you do strong steady breathing during their anxiety, it will calm your nervous system which will eventually calm theirs. You will catch their anxiety, and this will feed into their anxiety. Your strong steady breathing is the circuit breaker. They will catch your anxiety, but they will also catch your calm. Don’t worry if this takes a few minutes (and maybe a few more after that). Anxious brains are strong, powerful, beautiful brains working hard to protect. Breathe and be with. This will open the way for that distressed young nervous system to find its way home. And you don’t need to do more than that.♥️
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Needs and behaviour can get tangled up and treated as one. When you can, separate the need from the behaviour. Give voice to the need - let it find a way to breathe - and redirect the behaviour. 

The need might always be clear, especially if it’s being smothered by angry shouting words. If we stifle the behaviour without acknowledging the need, the need stays hungry. Help usher it into the light by making it clear that you’re ready to receive it. Then wait. Wait for the big behaviour to ease, for bodies to calm, and angry voices to soften - but keep the way to you open. ‘You’re a great kid and I know you know that behaviour wasn’t okay. Talk to me about what’s happening for you.’

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