We’re still learning what there is to know about mindfulness. One thing we know with absolute certainty is that it’s stellar for mental health. What we haven’t so sure about is how it actually works.
Recently, Carnegie Mellon University’s J David Creswell, whose work on the effects of mindfulness meditation has been at the cutting edge of the field, has provided the first evidence-based biological explanation of how mindfulness training works to reduce and affect mental and physical health. Here’s what they’ve found:
When people experience stress, there is decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that looks after conscious thinking and planning.
At the same time, activity is increased in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex, the areas of the brain that initiate the body’s stress response.
Research seems to indicate that the effectiveness of mindfulness lies in the way it reverses these responses during stress. It increases activity in the pre-frontal cortex and decreases the physiological stress response.
Here is where the link between mental health and physical health comes in. We know that when the body’s stress response is repeatedly activated, this increases the risk of diseases that are made worse by stress, such as depression, anxiety, HIV and heart disease.
Mindfulness reduces the subjective experience of stress. When this happens, the physiological stress response will also be turned down – less of the neurochemicals that are triggered by stress surging through the body and doing damage.
The research around mindfulness is exploding and we are still unlocking its secrets. We probably will be for some time. Without a doubt though, there are a wealth of benefits to be gained from making it part of a daily routine. Five minutes a day will make a difference, but most studies seem to suggest the greatest benefit comes with at least 25-30 minutes a day, though the more the better. For a more detailed explanation of the benefits of mindfulness, and how to practice it, see here.