Now more than ever, we’re bombarded with messaging like “7 Tips to Calm Your Mind During a Pandemic,” but that messaging– to calm down, to be present, has been around for a while. Being present is marketed as the solution for a troubled mind, to decrease distressing, negative thoughts that pop into our minds and increase happiness. But being present can be so elusive! What does science say about being present, and how to silence negative thoughts and refocus your mindset?
Mindful meditation is the practice of focusing your attention on the present moment to relax your body and mind, and has been increasingly researched in the past few decades. Meditation first garnered scientific attention through Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn for the treatment of chronic pain and depression. Dr. Kabat-Zinn is the founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He created the mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) in 1979, an eight week workshop that teaches the fundamental skills of mindfulness meditation. This program was used at the Stress Reduction Clinic to help patients with chronic pain and stress-related disorders that did not respond well to conventional treatments. Mindful meditation was shown to support coping strategies for chronic illness and improved quality of life. These positive outcomes gave mindfulness more attention in the medical community as a potentially effective integrative approach to mental health.
The practice has garnered ever-going popularity among the general public in recent years, too. The Center for Disease Control reports that meditation practice in the U.S. has increased by more than threefold in the past five years, piquing interest among the scientific community. In this piece, we’ll explore studies that suggest that meditation improves psychological health and supports a positive mindset, reinforcing its use as a complementary health approach.
The Neurobiology of Mindfulness
The practice of mindfulness meditation has been shown to activate several information highways in your brain, called “neural networks,” that connect the different brain areas that control your attention, self-awareness, and emotional regulation.
Let’s say you are trying to meditate to calm your nerves before a big presentation at school. Anyone who has tried yoga or meditation before knows the first thing you are asked to do is close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Your brain will direct your attention to your breathing through “alerting” and “orienting” networks that are responsible for focusing your attention. While you may be able to do this for a minute or two, your thoughts will eventually drift back to your presentation anxiety. In time, you’ll catch your mind wandering and try to snap yourself back to focusing on your breath. You can recognize your mind wandering because of the “salience” network, aptly named for the brain connections that notice any important passing thoughts that pull your attention away. The brain then employs an “executive” network to get your focus back on track. This network is the master controller of your attention and goal-directed behavior, like the goal of getting back to counting your breaths rather than the minutes before your presentation.
Two primary brain regions play a crucial part in directing and refocusing your attention: the anterior cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex. Both areas are located at the front of the brain and have several important functions, from decision-making to awareness and attention. Four days of mindful meditation has shown to activate both of these areas and reduce anxiety. Patients with greater self-reported anxiety showed higher activation of the posterior cingulate cortex, a region associated with the default mode network. This network is involved in processing thoughts about yourself, leading researchers to believe that higher state anxiety may result from an inability to silence these thoughts.
The bouts of mind-wandering that appear during meditation are commonly preoccupied with an internal monologue about yourself and your life. These thoughts can often turn negative, allowing emotional unrest to enter your headspace. Maybe your thoughts are consumed with the idea that you’re unprepared for your presentation, or you believe you’re an awful public speaker. Psychology refers to this harmful and often biased self-perception as the “dysfunctional self” that enables the manifestation of stress and anxiety. Mindful meditation builds your ability to recognize mind-wandering and return to consciousness without thought.
Another brain region that plays a central role in the same information highway is the amygdala－the brain’s fear center. The amygdala is activated when you see a spider crawling on your wall or during long periods of stress, like preparing for a big presentation. To effectively regulate your emotions, your brain must dampen the amygdala’s response to emotional triggers. One way this can happen is by generating higher activity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex during mindful meditation. Enhanced communication between these two areas strengthens regulatory control over the amygdala’s response to emotional images. Studies show that the reduced amygdala response to emotional images during mindful meditation persists outside of practice. This enhancement of emotional control can positively impact your response to stressors. Mindfulness also reduces spontaneous activity between the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex, a connection that is associated with increased anxiety. Reducing the activity between these two regions lowers your stress hormone levels and builds stress resilience, putting you in a better position to handle your nerves. Together, reduced emotional response to unpleasant thoughts or situations nurtures psychological health and overall well-being.
Cultivation of a Constructive Mindset
Mindfulness training is associated with improved mood and more positive self-esteem. Eight weeks of meditation can lower the intensity and frequency of negative emotions, positively impacting psychological distress. The boost in self-esteem observed with meditation practice may result from a better agreement between your outward and inward self-image. Self-esteem can either be implicit, your automatic and unconscious opinion of yourself, or explicit, what you say out loud about yourself. A study examining the effects of mindfulness on implicit and explicit self-esteem found that meditation bridges these images together, potentially nurturing more reliance on innate feelings of self-worth. This influence on personal disposition places you in a better position to combat stress and mental health challenges.
Several studies have explored the effectiveness of mindful meditation on clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. A central symptom of both diseases is rumination, an obsessive and repetitive thinking pattern that often fixates on a negative or stressful topic. If your presentation anxiety has consumed your attention, you are “ruminating” on the matter. One study showed a significant reduction in distracting and ruminative thoughts within one month of mindfulness practice. Meditation can also decrease rumination in patients with past depression, an important factor for preventing relapse. Mindfulness-based interventions have shown to have lasting effects on depression, with research demonstrating that meditation is as effective as other behavioral therapies and pharmacological interventions.
Further, meditation decreases stress reactivity in generalized anxiety disorder patients, supporting the idea that regulating your emotions can help manage triggering situations. A critical component of stress reactivity is acceptance of your present experience. Stress originates in the anterior cingulate cortex, the same area involved in attentional control. Effective management of stress involves refocusing your attention and employing mindful-acceptance to mitigate your emotional response. The attentional control gained from mindfulness offers an alternative coping strategy for anxiety and facilitates the return to an emotional baseline.
Consistent practice of mindfulness meditation provides an essential set of tools to improve self-regulation and to manage your mindset better. This alternative approach to a healthy headspace offers something for everyone－an easily accessible way to improve your daily life today.
Caleigh Findley is a Ph.D. candidate in the Pharmacology and Neuroscience Department at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. She is passionate about science writing and recently started an academic blog called Perspectives from the Benchtop.