Mindfulness meditation is an ancient practice that we should rediscover, for the well-being of our physical health and mental balance. Mindfulness implies full attention, which means that our mind is in a state of relaxation, but attentive, perfectly in tune with the “here and now”.
Through mindfulness, full awareness and active presence is promoted, so our senses are amplified but we get rid of the need to intervene and judge what we are experiencing. We learn to flow. Therefore, systematically practicing transcendental meditation produces very positive changes in our daily life, in the way we relate to others, in which we face mishaps and also in the way we relate to ourselves.
The inner changes generated by mindfulness meditation are so powerful that many psychologists have included it in their arsenal of therapeutic techniques. In fact, a recent study conducted at the University of Oxford with 1258 patients concluded that “mindfulness therapy is as effective as antidepressants, but does not have the same side effects.” These researchers also found that mindfulness is particularly effective in people suffering from recurrent depression and, even more interestingly, that it is very effective in preventing it.
Now a team of researchers from the Netherlands has gone a step further by showing that mindfulness meditation not only works on a psychological level, but also causes changes in the brain.
A more connected, relaxed and reactive brain with mindfulness
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These neuroscientists have conducted a systematic review of all the studies conducted to date on mindfulness meditation, to evaluate how this practice can change the brain in just 8 weeks.
They based their research on 30 previous studies that analyzed the functional and structural changes that occur in the brain when people started practicing meditation.
It turned out that the studies reported changes both in activity as well as in the volume and degree of neuronal connectivity in different areas of the brain:
Prefrontal cortex, an area involved in decision making and emotional regulation.
Amygdala, a structure that acts as protection against environmental hazards and modulates emotional reactions.
Hippocampus, a structure that plays a key role in learning and memory.
Insula, a structure related to body representation, which also allows you to become aware of emotions, feelings and desires.
Anterior cingulate cortex, a very important area not only involved in the regulation of heart rate and blood pressure, but also in decision-making processes and empathy.
The changes found in the brain coincide with other experiments, in which meditation has been found to help regulate our emotional state, make better decisions, improve memory and boost concentration.
Indeed, researchers from Harvard University and Justus Liebig-University delved into this practice to understand its action in the brain. They concluded that mindfulness meditation works through some fundamental aspects:
1. Help people have more control over their mind, for example by helping them develop full attention and ignore distractions.
2. It facilitates greater awareness of your body, allowing people to perceive the small signals sent by the body and thus be able to counteract stress before it grows too much.
3. It stimulates emotional self-control, in particular the ability to deal with “negative” or unpleasant emotions, making people use their experiences more effectively.
4. Change the perception of your “self”, as people abandon the idea that their personality is permanent and immutable, which has a powerful therapeutic effect and promotes compassion for themselves.
However, perhaps the most interesting fact is that these changes occur after only 8 weeks of systematic practice, which means that you don’t have to lock yourself up in a Buddhist monastery to get all these benefits, you just need to be constant. In fact, it takes so little to turn you into a conscious person.
Is Mindful Meditation For Everyone?
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Despite the multiple benefits of mindful meditation some people may not feel comfortable with this practice. In fact, a study from the early 1990s indicated that some people may experience loss of motivation or panic attacks during the first few weeks of practice.
Another, more recent, study conducted at the University of Washington examined cases where this type of meditation was linked to increased anxiety, depersonalization and headache. Why?
The problem is that mindfulness meditation involves a deep exploration of our “inner space”, and not all people are psychologically prepared for it. Being face to face with the suffering and grudge accumulated over the years, body tensions, critical thoughts and all those things hidden from consciousness, can be devastating.
So when people are vulnerable or suffer from huge internal conflicts, they should practice guided mindfulness meditation, under psychological control. Sometimes, venturing into our inner world presents unexpected surprises that not everyone can cope with.
The latest research suggests how Mindfulness promotes functional changes in the brain through neuro plasticity.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation, therefore it requires time, energy, determination, firmness and discipline.
From the point of view of mental processes it is substantiated in paying attention to four elements in the present moment: one’s own body, one’s own sensory perceptions (physiological, physical and psychological belonging to the wide domains of pleasant, unpleasant, mixed and neutral), formations mental (e.g. anger, pain or compassion) and objects of the mind (every mental training has an object, you are angry with someone and something etc. …).
Observing these elements of one’s subjective experience takes place in a state of authentic non-reactive calm, in which one accepts what is observed for what it is, allowing changes to take place naturally, without hindering or promoting them and avoiding the usual resistance or the usual judgment that cause further suffering.
Some practices that can be found within Mindfulness are breathing meditation (observing one’s breath, focusing on it and remaining in observation of what happens while we do it) and body exploration or body scan (perform a systematic rotation of the attention of awareness in the various parts of the body, with the aim of authentically “feeling” each part of the body and dwelling on each of them).
Mindfulness can be practiced sitting (sitting meditation) or walking (walking meditation). Sitting meditation consists of assuming a dignified sitting position, on a meditation chair or bench or on the floor aided by a cushion. Walking meditation (suitable for particularly agitated people, as preparation for that session) consists in cultivating internal observation and awareness of sensations, while walking, concentrating on each step.
The constant practice of Mindfulness has proven effective in reducing stress and related diseases, in relieving physical symptoms related to organic diseases and, in general, in promoting profound and positive changes in attitude, behavior and perception of themselves, of others and of the world.
Main brain changes with mindful meditation
– a greater ability to master difficult life situations,
– greater power to manage ordinary and extraordinary conflicts and problems,
– an increase in acceptance and patience towards one’s own state of illness or one’s psychological and physical infirmities,
– a new ability of the mind to replace destructive emotions, which bring anxiety and depression, with ways of being more constructive, which promote equanimity, love and wisdom.
As Mindfulness has spread to the scientific and psychological world and has also established itself within Cognitivism, Neurosciences have started to deal with it to study its effects on practitioners’ brains. The latest research suggests how Mindfulness promotes functional changes in the brain through neuro plasticity.
Haselkamp, in a 2012 study, confirms this hypothesis and asserts that these changes in functional connectivity are long lasting.
It demonstrates how practitioners with many years of meditation are characterized by greater connectivity within the attentional networks and between these and the prefrontal medial regions. This data according to Haselkamp would cause greater development in mindfulness practitioners of cognitive skills, in maintaining attention and in releasing themselves from distractions.
In 2015, it was highlighted how three intensive days of mindfulness meditation can reduce the activation of the “right amygdala-anterior cingulate cortex” neural circuit in a sample of unemployed adults (35) and who had high levels of stress.
The neural circuit “right amygdala – anterior cingulate cortex” functions as an emotional radar, drawing attention to every new, uncertain or important element. Acts on the system.