Mindfulness and Health: This is Why it Works

Mindfulness and Health: Why It Works

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.

 

5 Comments

Kat

By the way, after reading this article, I felt more relaxed. I just wonder if mindfulness a way to meditate or a way of thinking in life and work?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Mindfulness is a form of meditation, but after a while it could very well change the way you start to think about things and react or respond to the things that happen in your life.

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Diane Conier

Question! My husband died 12 years ago of Bowel Cancer aged 50. I was aged 47 and have 3 sons.
At the time of their fathers death they where 20, 17 and 15. Whilst the younger 2 Seemed to have accepted the death and moved forward my eldest son seems to be trapped in grief, regret and guilt and has suffered greatly over the past 12 years. He tells me that he wants to move forward with his life but has soo much hurt and can’t seem to let go. He has suffered ?? bi polar and personality disorder since his father died but this is stable at the moment as he has had lots of coucelling. How can I his mother help him move forward . ??

Reply
Hey Sigmund

It’s sounds as though your son is getting the support he needs to move forward (through counselling and through you) and he sounds committed to doing this, which is the most important part. As his mother, the best thing you can do is to be there and accept him where he is at. It sounds as though you are a loving, supportive, available presence for him and you can’t don’t underestimate the power of that. The main thing is to let him set the pace and not to have any expectations of him that he’s not ready for. Just keep loving him and being available for him. It sounds as though you are doing exactly what he needs. Make sure you are getting the support you need too. You’ll be better for the people you love if you’re strong and supported yourself. Your family have been through a lot but it sounds like you have been the loving steady presence your family needs. They are lucky to have you.

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Annette B

Yes I Agee. Having suffered from anxiety for over 50 yrs I would encourage him to take a course on mindfulness it has done more for me to change my life then medication and talk therapy.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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