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.

3 Comments

Peter

Living in the moment literally means living a different mindlevel lifting yourself out of the continuous chatter of the everyday mind most people live in. You see and hear things living in the moment most people don’t hear or see because the ego keeps them so busy, that it doesn’t allow them to get out of the chatter of the ego mind that goes on day and night, about things that will never happen anyway. Most people are so busy making plans about things that will never happen, wasting brainpower they would need to decide whatever to do having all the facts at hand in the moment. I’m terribly bored living in the moment, being not interested in TV or books about phantasies of the human mind, or the past that is gone and cannot be changed or the future that always comes different then expected.

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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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