How mindfulness can change your brain and your life

Guest Blogger – Dr Matthew Jakovljevic – Osteopath B.S(clin), M.H.S(osteo)

Mindfulness is a bit of buzz word going around at the moment, but what exactly is it? Put simply, it just means being right here, right now.

Mindfulness means consciously bringing your awareness to the here and now experience, with openness, receptiveness and interest. That means just observing without judging. This is often achieved by focusing on your breath.

Mindfulness can do some really cool stuff, from helping with your mental health, all those ongoing pains you have and can even help your sex life!

Why practice mindfulness meditation

The word meditation can make some people cringe and think of monks chanting. I feel really comfortable talking about mindfulness for two reasons, 1. It’s part of my daily routine and 2. It has some seriously good research behind it.

Mindfulness changes your brain. A study by Hölzel et al (2011), did MRIs before and after 8 week mindfulness meditation program.

Showed increases in the size of the gray matter (muscle of your brain) around the:

  • Hippocampus (regulation of emotions)
  • Increased density in brainstem (parasympathetic/ decrease stress response)
  • Increased density in cerebellum (mini-brain responsible for movement control)   

I always like to take a step back and just think about that for a second, real, physical changes. Just like working out your muscles makes them bigger and stronger, being mindful makes your brain bigger and stronger.

You can learn more about these changes from this TedTalk from Sarah Lazar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8rRzTtP7Tc

A recent systematic review, the highest level of scientific evidence (Gotnik et.al., 2015). concluded that mindfulness approaches help to alleviate symptoms, both mental and physical, in the adjunct treatment of

  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease,
  • Chronic pain
  • Depression and anxiety disorders

Mindfulness can also:

Phone ‘apps’
There is a couple of fantastic ‘apps’ for your phone that have mindfulness exercises
Smiling Mind (Free)
ACT Companion: The Happiness Trap App ($15)
Headspace (10 days free)

I suggest that my patients try mindfulness everyday for at least two weeks. It’s a skill and just like any skill, it takes time to become good at it. So give a good chance to start seeing the benefits.

Let’s do a simple mindfulness exercise now….. 
Take ten deep breaths, as slowly as possible. (You may prefer to do this with your eyes closed.) Now focus on the rise and fall of your rib cage, and the air moving in and out of your lungs. Notice the sensations as the air flows in: your chest rising, your shoulders lifting, your lungs expanding. Notice what you feel as the air flows out: your chest falling, your shoulders dropping, the breath leaving your nostrils. Focus on completely emptying your lungs. Push out every last bit of air, feeling your lungs deflate, and pause for a moment before breathing in again. As you breathe in, notice how your tummy gently pushes outward. Now let any thoughts and images come and go in the background, as if they were cars passing by outside your house. When a new thought or image appears, briefly acknowledge its presence, as if you were nodding at a passing motorist. As you do this, keep your attention on the breath, following the air, as it flows in and out of your lungs. You may find it helpful to silently say to yourself, ‘Thinking’, whenever a thought or image appears. Many people find this helps them to acknowledge and let go of the thought. Give it a go and if it’s helpful, keep doing it. From time to time a thought will capture your attention; it will `hook you’ and ‘carry you away’, so that you lose track of the exercise. The moment you realise you’ve been hooked, take a second to notice what distracted you; then gently ‘unhook’ yourself and refocus on your breathing.  
(Harris, 2013, p81) 


Different forms of mindfulness
Maybe listening and thinking exercises aren’t working for you. You could always try to the new craze of adult colouring. I’ve included one below, give it a try! Remember, the idea is to get lost in the coloring, not just ‘get it done’.

Please note, the advice above is generalised and may not be specific to your situation. If in doubt please contact one of our osteopaths or another health care provider to provide a specific diagnosis and treatment of your condition.

Matthew is an osteopath who practices in the Western Suburbs of Melbourne and Geelong, Victoria, Australia. He is available for consults at Western Region Health and Procare Geelong.

References

Gotink, R. A., Chu, P., Busschbach, J. J., Benson, H., Fricchione, G. L., & Hunink, M. M. (2015). Standardised mindfulness-based interventions in healthcare: an overview of systematic reviews and meta-analyses of RCTs. PLoS One, 10(4), e0124344.

Harris, R. (2013). The happiness trap: Stop struggling, start living (Vol. 1): Exisle Publishing.

Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.

 

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