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Mindfulness helps change bad habits, reduce stress and change your brain

Setting on bed meditating

Did you know that mindfulness (the act of staying present) can help you change bad habits?

Mindfulness is the ability to stay present, focusing your attention on what you are doing now and what is going on around you. Mindfulness is not worrying about the future (what is going to happen), and it is not worrying about the past (what has already happened). It is you being fully aware of this moment.

Mindfulness-based relapse preconvention (MBRP)

MBRP is a technique that trains people with addictive behaviors to change their habits and manage their cravings by staying present and focusing on the sensations of the craving. Instead of distracting themselves or avoiding the craving, MBRP teaches people to set with the feeling, to let themselves feel what they are feeling.

A large study measuring the differences in the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral approaches, the twelve-step recovery program, and MBPR found MBPR was more successful in helping people decrease the frequency the quantity of drugs and alcohol they were consuming. The researchers concluded that mindfulness was a better approach for changing unhealthy habits.

By turning towards their pain, people were able to experience less of it.

Did you know that meditation changes your brain?

Staying present when experiencing physical and emotional discomfort is beneficial. Meditation changes the brain by transforming people’s relationship with pain and how they experience it.

The study showed that:

  • The brains of people who meditate show decreased activity in the area where the pain is registered (the primary somatosensory cortex).
  • The three areas where the pain is regulated had increased activity (the anterior insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the pre-frontal cortex). Here is a video that explains the functions of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J968Wco1u0s

Participants reported experiencing less pain when they intentionally turned towards the sensations they were feeling. By being fully aware of the pain, and doing nothing to stop it, the pain subsided and became less burdensome. People with chronic conditions reported pain reduction after learning to stay mindful through meditation, even though they still suffer from the illness.

Meditation decreases activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which impacts the flight or fight response. Additionally, it has been found to reduce the activity and grey matter volume in the amygdala. Areas of the prefrontal cortex were found to have thickened after mindfulness training occurred. This is the area directly behind your forehead. Connections between the amygdala and other parts of the brain weaken after mindfulness training.

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the area of the prefrontal cortex associated with stress regulation. For people with poor ACC function who are under stress were found to have impulsive behavior, and mental inflexibility. Experienced meditators display more activity in the ACC, and better stress regulation.

From an early age, people can be taught self-management skills. One study followed a group of pre-school children who took part in a mindfulness program. The program lasted six months. At the end of the program, the children were more able to regulate and were less impulsive than the group of children who did not receive mindfulness training.

The Benefits of Leaning into Discomfort

Activities like journaling or verbally describing unpleasant experiences can positively affect stress levels. For example, a group of people with a fear of spiders were asked to walk towards a tarantula and try to touch it. One group was asked to reassure themselves as they walked towards the spider, and another group was told to distract themselves from what they were doing. A third group was told to acknowledge and turn towards their fear by saying something like, “I am afraid of the big ugly spider.”  The third group who intentionally stayed present and allowed themselves to experience their fear were able to get the closest to the spider while experiencing the least number of physical symptoms. Staying present and aware of difficulties improves well-being. People whose minds wandered, who were easily distracted were less happy than those who were able to stay focused on the topic at hand.

Mindfulness Activity

If you would like to experience the positive effects of mindfulness you can start with a simple activity. Here is a 15-Minute Guided Practice: Turning Towards Difficulty

References

Halliwell, E. (2017, February 15). The Science and Practice of Staying Present Through Difficult Times. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/science-practice-staying-present-difficult-times/

What happens when the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are activated at the same time? ‘Autonomic Conflict’. (2017, Jun 19). Retrieved from Neuroamer: https://neuroamer.com/2017/06/19/what-happens-to-the-body-following-simultaneous-stimulation-of-the-sympathetic-and-parasympathetic-nervous-system-autonomic-conflict/

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