Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Meditation Effects on the Brain

I attended a seminar through the Institute for Natural Resources titled Meditation and the Brain: Physiologic Effects, Mindfulness, and Mental Health. It was very enlightening learning about various methods of meditation and their effects on the brain that I will share with you below. 

While meditation practices can be performed in a variety of ways, there are 4 main classes:

  • Focused Attention - focusing on your breath, mindfulness, bringing one's attention back to the physical sensation of breath 
  • Mantra Recitation - silent repetition of a sound, word, phrase
  • Open Monitoring - observing whatever spontaneously comes to mind without holding onto to it or changing it
  • Loving-Kindness - generating feelings of kindness and joy towards self and others
Diaphragmatic Breathing is the cornerstone of most meditations fills the lungs more fully, slows respiration rate, and elicits relaxation through the parasympathetic response.
To do this, take a deep, slow breath through the nose into the abdomen rather than the chest and exhale slowly through the nose slightly longer than you inhaled.

Mindfulness in Meditation

The art of learning to control one's thoughts is learned through mindfulness practices, which greatly benefit one's ability to meditate and focus on any task at hand. Simply put, mindfulness is the ability to acknowledge a thought and without placing any judgment, emotion or attachment to it, and instead letting it go. When we're able to develop detachment from out thought processes, our thoughts won't last long and thereby helps us to return our attention to the point of focus we have selected. Mindfulness helps us to move beyond the preoccupation we have with ourselves, which is at the core of many behavioral disorders, and it helps us to stay in the present moment rather than fixated on the past or future. 

Mindfulness has been shown to impact mental health by reducing stress and rumination, regulating emotion and attention, reducing mild to moderate depression and anxiety, and preventing depression relapse and has been helpful to those with addictions. Limitations in its effectiveness include major depression, acute and recurring anxiety, and major chronic mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. (Lutz, 2015)

Mindfulness can be practiced in more than one way. Two exercises include:
  • Minding Your Thoughts - Increasing awareness of thoughts by taking an inventory of all the thoughts that arise while sitting quietly with one's eyes closed. After writing down a new thought, close the eyes and focus on the breath until another thought arises.
  • Catch and Release - Focus attention to thoughts, trying to notice a thought as it arises then catch that thought, hold attention to it for a moment before then consciously releasing the thought by returning focus to the breath.

Effects of Meditation on the Brain

Meditation in general when practiced for 10 minutes a day for an 8-week period will result in the brain rewiring itself to allow for increased emotion regulation and decreased fight-flight activation. Deep meditation practices can also change one's perspectives and can include meta-cognitive awareness, perspective taking, cognitive reappraisal, and self-inquiry practices.

Additional brain changes seen in meditation research shows:

  • Reduced activity and volume in the amygdala thereby reducing negative emotions such as anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise
  • Reduced thinning of brain tissue, particularly the Cerebellum which is involved in coordination, memory and emotional regulation as well as the Insula that is involved in self-awareness
  • Increased connections between brain cells
  • Increased total of "grey matter" volume
  • Reduced damage by stress, anxiety and depression to the Hippocampus which involves encoding, consolidation and retrieval of new declarative long-term memories
    • (Lazar, 2015. Luders, 2015. Holzel, 2011 and 2015. Fox, 2014 and 2016. Chetelat, 2017.)

The frontal lobes of the brain focus attention and are involved in self-awareness, performing executive functions such as planning, analysis and decision making. Mindfulness meditations activate the left frontal lobe while decreasing activation of the right frontal lobe. Increased left frontal lobe activation is seen in individuals who have fewer negative emotions, report increased happiness, relaxation, enthusiasm and energy. Increased right frontal lobe shows increased stress, anxiety, and depression among individuals in mindfulness research studies (Fox et al, 2014). 

Mindfulness practice of staying focused on the present moment experience without judging or retaining mind wandering thoughts has been shown to induce both temporary state and long-term trait changes in the brain. Meaning with extended practice, mindfulness practiced during meditations, can alter one's personality traits (Tang 2016.) It has even been indicated that mindfulness may slow the process of cellular aging as shown by long term meditators displaying increased telomerase production. Telomerase lengthens telomeres, the DNA segments at the end of chromosomes. Telomeres are important as they stabilize genetic material cell division, a process which is inhibited during psychological stress (Saron, 2015.)

Different meditation practices worth exploring include:

Left Nostril Breathing  
Breathing only through the left nostril by closing the right nostril with a finger on the right hand, breathing in through left nostril while keeping mouth closed, and breathing out of the left nostril slowly and evenly.
  • May lower oxidative stress and blood pressure
  • May benefit panic disorder and anxiety arousal by engaging right hemisphere of the prefrontal cortex
  • Improves vagal tone of the vagus nerve allowing for faster relaxation and promotes cardiovascular health. Whereas, right nostril breathing may jeopardize cardiovascular heath over time (Pall, 2014)
Straw Breathing
Breathing slowly and deep through the nose, exhale slowly through a straw or pursed lips.
Repeat these steps for up to three minutes.

Vibrational Breathing
Inhale a large breath of air using abdominal breathing then hum "ooo" with pursed lips, change to "ing" sound in the nose, and end with "ah" vibrational energy in the back of the throat. 
Chanting of a mantra may also be used as a meditation technique. 

Non-Directive Meditation (Acem)
Allowing the mind's wandering thoughts, images, memories and emotions to emerge and pass freely while maintaining a relaxed focus of attention. Accepting mind wandering as part of meditation. This involves increased activation of brain areas associated with episodic memories of previously experienced events and emotional processing than concentrative practicing techniques. 

Meditation Object Transition
1. Focus on the present - sit quietly with the eyes closed, be aware of the body and environment
2. Focus on bodily sensations - release tension, let thoughts come and go while maintaining focus only on the body
3. Focus on breath - breathe naturally while focusing on breathing sensations
4. Counting the breaths - breathe while counting to 10 while inhaling and exhaling, can be used any time to counter mind wandering and to refocus

S.T.O.P. Mini Meditation
Can be used during any experience or activity.
  • Stop to provide a physical or mental pause
  • Take a deep breath mindfully, with full attention
  • Observe and notice thought triggers, what is occurring within and outside of the body
  • Proceed with relaxed awareness and focus
Meditative Movement Walking
Begin walking at a relaxed pace, maintaining mental focus on the feet with awareness to sights, sounds, or other sensations from the surrounding environment. Change to walking very slowly and paying attention to breaking down every step into 3 to 9 parts. Notice each movement with attentional focus before proceeding to the next movement.
  • Three Part Stepping:
  1. Lifting the foot
  2. Moving the foot forward
  3. Placing the foot down, shifting weight onto the forward foot in one slow continuous action
  • Nine Part Stepping:
  1. Lifting the heel
  2. Lifting the instep of the foot
  3. Then ball of the foot off the ground
  4. Moving the foot into the air
  5. Moving the foot forward
  6. Moving the foot then downward
  7. Placing the heel down
  8. Placing the instep down
  9. Placing the ball of the foot down followed by adding weight
Meditative Movement Flow
Flow is considered a mental state where a person performs an activity with full immersion, involvement and enjoyment without mind wandering. Meditative movements that may induce flow include Flow Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong as well as others. 

Flow involves:
1. Complete concentration on the task
2. Transformation of time - speeding up or slowing down
3. A feeling of effortless and ease
4. Balance between challenge and skills
5. Actions and awareness merge, losing self-conscious thoughts
6. Feeling of control over the task

Mindful Standing
  1. Stand in a relaxed posture with feet a comfortable distance apart, keeping the head centered over the torso, torso centered over hips, and hips centered over feet
  2. Test balance by leaning forward, backward and to the sides almost to the point of becoming unbalanced while keeping your breath centered in the abdomen, raise one foot and then the other testing your balance on one leg.
  3. Maintain eyes open staring toward the horizon without focusing on anything in particular
  4. Remain anchored in the present by following the breath and reorienting to the breath when the mind wanders. Experience environmental stimuli without thinking about them. 

Meditation can be combined with counseling in the following therapy practices:

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Emphasizes mindfulness and contemplative, focused attention techniques for stress reduction including elements from mindfulness practices, hatha yoga, meditation and awareness exercises. MSBR is widely used for a variety of purposes including stress relief and decreasing chronic pain, phobias, generalized anxiety by increasing one's awareness of how one responds to stress, chronic pain, trauma, and other sensations and with reflection on habitual reactions, helps to change how one responds.
Modality components include:
  • Nonjudgmental Observation in examination of life and experiences without trying to change or place an approving or disapproving label to experiences
  • Acceptance of all thoughts and feelings as part of life, no matter how unpleasant and treating them with calmness rather than fear or resistance
  • Present-Moment Awareness of being in the now, practicing mindfulness to acknowledge and let go of thoughts rather than focusing on the past and future
A core exercise of MBSR is a body scan, which can be used in progressive relaxation. There are different ways to perform a body scan, however in MSBR the focus is to lie comfortably with eyes closed and a focus on observing natural breath. Taking notice to feel the whole body and its sensations before moving attention to the toes on the left foot and channeling breath into the toes with each inhale and out the toes with each exhale, imagining the breath traveling from the nose to the toes and back to the nose while allowing to feel any sensations in the toes that may arise. When ready, taking a deep breath in that's sent to the toes and upon exhaling, imagining the toes to "dissolve". After a few moments staying with the breath here, then repeat this exercise moving to the next region of the body. For example, toes, bottom of foot, heel, top of the foot, ankle and so forth from the left side of the body to the right until the entire body has been scanned. 

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
Combines mindfulness training and cognitive behavioral therapy to increase recognizing deterioration of mood without judgment or reaction thereby increasing internal awareness and utilization of tools to disengage from maladaptive patterns and behaviors, such as repetitive negative thinking. MBCT has been shown to be effective in treating mood disorders such as major depression.

Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
Teaches meditative and mindfulness with didactic training in interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance by helping to recognize the contrast between acceptance and change. DBT has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety and depression and was originally developed for the treatment of borderline personality disorder. 
For an overview of DBT process, read Danielle Faith's guest post Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for Chronic Pain.

I encourage you to explore the various meditative and mindfulness practices described and connect with a mental health counselor if you'd like to further explore and address any mental health concerns.

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