The Point to All This Mindfulness Practice Is…


Perhaps you feel like you’re starting to get the hang of meditation. Or you’re practicing noticing five things around you. And you are having the experience of dropping into the present moment. You are learning to recognize when your mind has wandered, or when you’re getting caught up in a flood of emotion — and you are able to return your attention to the here and now.

So then what? What’s the point?

This is where we need to get a bit technical. As this Harvard Health article reminds us, the stress response begins in the brain. The amygdala is constantly receiving and interpreting information from our external and internal environments. When it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers the fight-or-flight response, prompting an initial surge of epinephrine. If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, a second pathway culminates in the release of cortisol, causing the body to stay “revved up” and on high alert. Eventually, the threat passes, cortisol levels fall, and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in with the “rest and digest” response.

Most of our day-to-day stress occurs in response to thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations, not true life-or-death situations. The threat never seems to pass entirely. This chronic, low-level stress keeps the second pathway activated and traps us in a state of vigilance and reactivity.

The prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain that is responsible for planning, problem solving, and emotion regulation — has the ability to override the stress response. Unfortunately, the active amygdala shuts down the neural pathway to the prefrontal cortex. And chronic stress can increase the size of the amygdala and shrink the prefrontal cortex, making it harder and harder for us to regulate our stress response.

There is evidence that mindfulness practice can decrease the size of the amygdala and reduce its activity, leading to a lower background level of stress. Mindfulness practice also increases grey matter in the prefrontal cortex. We become better and better at noticing stress-inducing thoughts, emotions, and sensations before they can initiate the stress response. If we do start to get carried away, by bringing our awareness to the present moment, we give the prefrontal cortex the pause it needs to step in and put on the brakes.

By Cynthia Knapp Dlugosz

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