Beating Anxiety: how mindfulness affects the worrying brain

Far from being the latest advance in big-gym yoga, mindfulness has been an ancient bedrock of mental health since there was such a thing as mental health. It is perhaps the most historically ubiquitous and thorough-going practice used in combating anxiety and increasing emotional well-being.

This being the case, I am fascinated that mindfulness had not receive serious academic attention until fairly recently. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the early pioneers in mindfulness studies, wrote his first medical research paper on the connection between mindfulness and reduction of chronic pain in 1982. Since that time scores of papers have been published. Around 670 such papers were published in 2017 alone.

Why the sudden uptick in popularity?

It could be that many people today have little interest in health trends unless they are backed by good science. Mindfulness as a remedy for anxiety has always been a mainstay in religion and the meditative arts, but until recently it has lacked empirical evidence as to why it works.

This changed due to a major discovery in neuroscience known as neuroplasticity, that is, the brain’s ability to reorganize and restructure throughout one’s lifetime. Mindfulness has been shown to directly influence this process.

Changes in the brain specific to combating anxiety are commonly found in people regularly engaged in mindfulness practices. For example, they demonstrate increases in the density of their hippocampus (a region of the brain involved in learning and memory), and decreases in the density of their amygdala (a region involved in responding to threats). Put simply, mindfulness helps increase the use of one’s overall knowledge bank, and decrease the intensity of alarm when dealing with perceived threats.

And this goes a long way in battling anxiety.

One major issue with having an overactive amygdala is that it tends to keep one in a constant state of high-alert. In such a state one is prone to interpret normal, everyday situations and stimuli as threatening. A properly functioning amygdala is usually at rest in these situations, allowing for clearer interpretation and response to possible threats.

But a hyperactive amygdala keeps the internal fight or flight response system constantly activated, which keeps one on high-alert, feeling keyed up, chronically on edge, waiting for a bomb to drop – in a nutshell, it keeps one anxious. Ironically, in this state one has even less ability to successfully navigate actual threats when they come.

Many things can contribute to this condition, but, as noted, the great news about neuroplasticity is that the mind can naturally alter this hyperactivity through daily mindfulness practices. Examples of these practices can be found in abundance online so I will not take the time to rehearse them here, except to say that mindfulness – such as a regimen of prayer or meditation – should involve at least two vital elements: 1) focused attention on one’s breathing, and 2) an awareness of one’s body and mind in the present moment.

If this sounds too simple, just try it. Many people in their first attempts at mindfulness find it curiously foreign, sometimes even hostile, to their sense of being. It is helpful to keep in mind that anything capable of restructuring one’s brain is bound to be difficult at first. Similar to the beginning period of a workout routine, the first few weeks is nothing but sore muscles and fatigue.

A closing note:

For those readers who have taken the next step in their battle with anxiety and are currently searching for a counselor, be on the lookout for therapists who know how to capitalize on this ability of the mind to heal itself. Much like a good physician who cleans and dresses a wound and then gets out of the way to let the body heal itself, a good psychotherapist is able to create an atmosphere in which the mind can do its own healing.

3 thoughts on “Beating Anxiety: how mindfulness affects the worrying brain”

  1. Also – I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the connection between mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Seems like the person who practices mindfulness is in the best position to engage successfully in CBT and thus continually reframe their interpretation and experience of reality in increasingly healthy ways…

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  2. Andrew, I’d have to agree that one with a good amount of mindfulness would find greater success in CBT, but that is probably true with any of the theoretical approaches. I will admit that I have a bit of a built in bias against CBT in most situations, though there are definitely times when it is the most appropriate approach. One gripe against it is that it is so ‘technique’ heavy, cookie-cutter like, too directive (again, notwithstanding that sometimes that’s is exactly what is needed). Awareness, mindfulness, often takes a backseat to “do this exercise, now do this homework, now roll over” etc.

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