You must have heard about it: mindfulness to reduce stress. How does that work exactly? Psychologist Wouter explains it to you.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a state of mind in which attention is consciously focused on experiencing body sensations, feelings and thoughts, without responding to them. With meditation and mindfulness exercises you can easily reach this state. Mindfulness is effective against mental health problems and is regularly used to combat depressive and anxiety complaints.
A bit strange
It seems a bit strange of course. Doing some relaxation and breathing exercises for a while and your symptoms will decrease. That’s why scientists did some research to investigate what’s going on in the brain when you’re using mindfulness techniques. There are a few brain areas that are important with stress:
There are a few brain parts that play a role in stress, namely:
- The prefrontal cortex: important for making decisions, social behavior, putting things into perspective, impulse control and regulating emotions.
- The hippocampus: important in memory.
- The amygdala: important for controlling and processing emotions.
Stress deactivates our prefrontal cortex, allowing us to respond more impulsively to situations. After all, we are not supposed to think for a few minutes on the pedestrian crossing when a car approaches us at full speed.
You may recognize that during stressful periods you are stimulated a little faster and seem to have less control. Then your prefrontal cortex is be less active.
Mindfulness ensures that the prefrontal cortex becomes a little more awake and strengthens your ability to put things into perspective. You will regain a sense of control. In addition, the prefrontal cortex has an inhibitory effect on the cingulate cortex, a brain region that is involved in worrying and processing pain and emotions. The chaos of all those negative thoughts will eventually decrease!
In addition, mindfulness ensures that your hippocampus becomes better at softening and changing connections with negative memories.
The blurring of a current experience by an old memory is called proactive interference. You can compare it to the situation where you read two similar stories and then want to tell someone the last read story. There is a high chance that you will accidentally add details from the first story to the second story. This is because your memory is trying to make certain connections between similar things. For example, we often tend to think back to a negative event in the past with certain triggers. Applying mindfulness will weaken those associations because your hippocampus can better distinguish. This means you are triggered less quickly!
The combination of the increase of activity in the prefrontal cortex and the strengthening of the hippocampus, will eventually lead to a decrease in stress. They send a signal to the amygdala that it’s no longer necessary to respond with a load of negative emotions to certain events. The hippocampus recognizes an event and signals that it’s ‘safe’, the prefrontal cortex evaluates the situation and together the pass on to the amygdala that there’s no more reason to panic. By applying mindfulness techniques, the activity in the amygdala can decrease in just a few weeks already.
The combination of increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex and strengthening the hippocampus ultimately leads to a decrease in stress. The hippocampus recognizes the situation and signals that it is “safe”, the prefrontal cortex evaluates the situation. Together they tell the amygdala that there is no reason to panic anymore. By applying mindfulness techniques, the activity in the amygdala can decreased in just a few weeks already.