Mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga have seemingly become popular overnight. “Namaste” is a buzzword, and downward dog is nearly a household term. This recent pop culture-type popularity may make these activities seem fad-ish, leaving us to ask: can mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques really help improve our lives? Science is starting to point toward an answer, and that answer is yes.
There is a reason these age-old practices have stood the test of time and humans have been practicing them for 3,000 years or more. Many studies are being done to prove their effectiveness in improving brain function and alleviating symptoms of chronic pain, anxiety and stress.
Here are some ways that mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation can make your life better:
MBSR Decreases Fear and Anxiety
Meditation, especially that employed in MBSR, encourages us to become self-observers and differentiate between the true self and the thoughts. If we train our brains to accept the fact that our thoughts and emotions are not who we truly are, then it logically follows that those thoughts and emotions would cease to affect our mental state, i.e. we would have less fear, depression and anxiety.
There is physical evidence that backs up this common sense notion that MBSR has potential to change the brain. In MRI and EEG scans of people actively meditating, psychologists observed a reduction of the brain cell volume in the amygdala, the area of the brain that regulates fear, anxiety and stress. What’s more, in follow-up interviews, people actually reported feeling better. One study showed that meditation and yoga have the same size of effect as antidepressant pills on symptoms of anxiety and depression.
MBSR Improves Concentration and Attention
When we practice yoga and meditation, our goal is to concentrate on the present moment, encouraging our brains to stay focused on the task at hand. When our Monkey Mind gets wandering, it can wreak all sorts of havoc, especially if we are dealing with any sort of stress, trauma, or mental affliction.
MBSR practices can help decrease mental habits like rumination and worrying about things you cannot change, like the past and the future. Through training the brain to come back over and over again to the task at hand during time on the mat or cushion, it remembers how to do this when you’re not practicing.
A study at Yale showed that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the part of the brain that is in charge of mind-wandering and self-centeredness. Although we all struggle with taming that Monkey Mind, meditators are better at snapping out of it when the brain gets into a cycle of overthinking or negativity. What an amazing skill to have!
MBSR Increases Learning and Memory
While yoga and meditation are powerful tools in keeping our Monkey Mind in check, it logically follows that improved concentration would increase our ability to learn and retain information.
The hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory, and the insula is said to control our awareness. Studies using MRI and EEG observations are finding that both of these areas are more active during meditation. This is important for people who suffer from trauma, anxiety and depression, as a side effect of all three is reduced cognitive function.
MBSR Combats Aging
It has been proven that memory exercises can help slow or prevent the onset of dementia and other things that age can afflict on the brain. In that sense, the improved memory that MBSR affords can help slow the aging process of our most valuable organ.
To take it one step further, if you compare the brain of a person who has been practicing meditation for 20 years and someone of the same age who never has, the volume of gray matter is notably larger. That’s a powerful argument for starting a practice today!
MBSR Improves Self-Control
Since meditation and other MBSR modalities help us be more in tune with how to recognize and control our thoughts and emotions in real time, this has powerful indications for the treatment of addiction and eating disorders.
Meditation has been shown to be quite effective in helping people who struggle with impulse control. In a trial that combined mindfulness training with the American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking program, participants who practiced mindfulness were much more likely to quit smoking by the end of the program. They also showed higher success rates at later follow-up interviews.
The implication here is that mindfulness practices helped train the smokers’ brains to separate their cravings from the actual act of smoking, and also to have the patience to ride out cravings and not take any action on them. Pretty impressive, given that it has been said that smoking is one of the hardest habits to kick!
All of these benefits of meditation have amazing implications for people of all ages and walks of life. From mental and emotional disorders to addiction, to overall improvement of brain function, MBSR practices like yoga and meditation have powerful potential to improve lives. Check out our facility in Rancho Mirage, California today to see how our offerings in MBSR can change your brain for the better!