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Introduction to Mindfulness

Introduction to Mindfulness

For thousands of years, mindfulness has been a strong element in Eastern spiritual traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. In the past 40 years, with the rise of scientific evidence, mindfulness has evolved into a range of secular therapies and courses in the West. Most of them focused on being aware of the present moment and simply noticing feelings and thoughts as they come and go. It’s been accepted as a useful therapy for anxiety and depression for around a decade. It’s being explored by schools, pro sports teams and military units to enhance performance and is showing promise as a way of helping sufferers of chronic pain and addiction too.

There is even some evidence that mindfulness can help with the symptoms of certain physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV. Yet until recently, little was known about how a few hours of quiet reflection each week could lead to such an intriguing range of mental and physical effects.

 

Now, as the popularity of mindfulness grows, brain imaging techniques are revealing that this ancient practice can profoundly change the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other – and therefore how we think – permanently.

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Fascinating facts about mindfulness and stress reduction

Mindfulness practice and expertise is associated with a decreased volume of grey matter in the amygdala (red), a key stress-responding region. MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practises, the brain’s “fight or flight” centre, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.

As the amygdala shrinks, the prefrontal cortex – associated with higher-order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.

The “functional connectivity” between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.

The scale of these changes correlates with the number of hours of meditation practise a person has done. In other words, our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.

How does mindfulness support neuroplasticity?

The term neuroplasticity refers to structural and functional changes in the brain related to experience. It has been known that musical training and language learning promote structural changes in our brain and cognitive abilities.

Mindful awareness is a form of experience that changes not only the structure but also the function of our brain throughout our lives.

You can think of mindfulness as a mental muscle. Every time we lift a weight, we strengthen the muscle we are working on. In the same way, every time we pay attention to the present moment without judgment, connectivity of the attention, self-regulation and compassion circuitry grows in our brain.

Other studies on expert meditators – that is, subjects with at least 40,000 hours of mindfulness practice under their belt – discovered that their resting brain looks similar, when scanned, to the way a normal person does when he or she is meditating.

“It’s as if that way of thinking has become the default; it is automatic – it doesn’t require any concentration.”

If you enjoyed this article.  Please review the Wundertraining workshops on  ‘Mindfulness for Focus and Clarity‘  and  ‘The Mindful Leader

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