For most of us, plans to meditate are often overruled by the demands of life as when you’re juggling work, family, and relationships, finding your zen can fall by the wayside.
Yet sparing just a few minutes a week to engage in relaxation and mindfulness really can have lasting impacts on combating stress and avoiding burnout.
Why? Because it can change your brain chemistry!
Thanks to the awesome team at Inside Your Head – a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do – they have delved into exactly what happens.
Firstly, meditation is said to be the practice of attention, which can shift the way we think.
In the words of Zev Schuman-Olivier, executive director at the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance in Boston, he defines meditation as: “Focusing on an object of attention and returning awareness or returning attention to that object again and again, in a way that ultimately creates cortical remodelling” – essentially this is where old, ineffective structures are removed and replaced with new and beneficial ones.
Secondly, the type of meditation is critical as it influences how your brain may rewire as a result.
Writer and former brain scientist Dana Smith explained: “For example, in mindfulness meditation, the focus is the present moment, often with an emphasis on your own body and breath.
“Meanwhile, in loving-kindness meditation, the focus is love and kindness, both toward yourself and other people.”
Ultimately, the areas of the brain that become activated during these varying rituals differ depending on what the focus of your attention is.
This suggests that by focusing your attention in a certain way you can actually shift the activity in your brain, and over time, that can result in more permanent structural changes.
Dana continued: “During mindfulness meditation, activity in the right insula, which is important for the physical perception of your body, gets turned up.
“Another area that’s strengthened is your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in cognitive control and attention.
“Activate these areas enough times, and your neurons start to wire new connections, which eventually become more automatic thought patterns.”
This is really where the core message lies, that with repetition, you can create new patterns which go on to stay with you long after the meditation or yoga class is over.
And just as parts of the brain are activated during meditation, other areas are turned off.
Dana said: “A collection of regions in the middle of the brain called the default mode network that normally comes online when your mind is wandering gets quieter when you focus your thoughts.
“The default mode network consists of three highly connected areas that are important for self-reflection, autobiographical memory, imaging the future, and evaluating social relationships. This network is associated with rumination, which is tied to feelings of depression, so dampening activity in these areas can help with depression symptoms.”
This is supported by experiments that have been carried out on people as they meditate which shows that the brain becomes activated as the mind wanders and only by bringing attention back again to the present moment can they deactivate that default mode and reduce stress.
Dana added: “Shifting your attention and getting out of that default mode network requires cognitive control and strengthens your attention capabilities, it is like working a muscle.
“A stronger prefrontal cortex helps with emotion regulation and resisting some of the negative thought patterns or stress loops that can occur with depression and anxiety.”
So, meditation not only trains your brain to avoid harmful thought patterns and rumination when the default mode network is turned on, but it also strengthens a self-control region which is important for preventing anxious and depressive thoughts from spinning out of control.