In this paper, I explore the practice of mindfulness as a tool that leads to a sense of being fully, sensually alive. Such a perception supports the recognition in neuroscience and somatic studies that mindfulness increases self-awareness, affecting change in the way we feel through establishing a vital connection with our bodies, and becoming aware of our internal experience. This is important in our modern social domain where the body is in a constant state of hyperarousal, triggered by the chronic stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in unhealthy consequences psychologically, socially, and physically. This essay is an exploration of how mindfulness as a somatic-based therapy might induce neural plasticity.
According to professor and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn (2009), mindfulness is cultivating the ability to pay attention in the present moment without any judgement. This supports the notion of self-awareness as a critical element in learning to free ourselves from reacting and being under the control of our impulses and emotions. Neuroplasticity, according to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Norman Doidge (2007), is the ability of the brain to change its structure with each activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so it was better suited to the task at hand. Through understanding both the positive and negative effects of plasticity, we can then truly understand the extent of our human potential.
The argument of this essay is the importance of mindfulness as a tool to balance the emotional and conscious brain because of the dangers of not doing so. Dutch psychiatrist and educator, Bessel van der Kolk (2015), put forth that when the emotional, unconscious brain, constantly overpowers the conscious brain, we will be left in a prolonged state of hyperarousal, resulting in being thrown off balance, mentally and physically. Although the primary responsibility of the stress hormones released by our emotional brain give us the vital capacity to survive in dangerous situations, it is important to acknowledge that when we do not use them constructively, this automatic release works against us. In this essay, I discuss the brain systems involved when we are faced in a threatening situation, investigate the impact of prolonged hyperarousal, and finally consider the role of mindfulness on inducing neural plasticity to better cope with the stress reaction in the body.
In the Face of Fear: React or Respond
Sensory information from the outside world converges in the thalamus, where input from our perceptions are blended and integrated into a coherent experience. These sensations are passed to the amygdala and the frontal lobes. While the amygdala lies in the emotional, unconscious brain, the frontal lobes are a part of the executive brain which enables us to make conscious choices. The amygdala identifies if the incoming sensory input is relevant for our survival, and if impending danger is detected, it recruits the hypothalamus and brain stem to trigger the release of powerful stress hormones to defend against the incoming threat. As the incoming information from the thalamus is processed by the amygdala faster than the frontal lobes, it acts automatically when it perceives a threat to our survival before our conscious mind is aware of the danger.
The executive role of the frontal lobes enables us with the capacity to objectively witness our thoughts, feelings and emotions before choosing how to respond. Thus, well-functioning frontal lobes are crucial for harmonious relationships with fellow human beings. While top-down regulation requires strengthening the capacity of the frontal lobes to monitor the body’s sensations, bottom-up regulation involves recalibrating with the autonomic nervous system, which can be accessed through breath, movement and touch. Therefore, this regulation can be improved through practicing mindfulness meditation and yoga, with their emphasis largely on breathing, a body function under both conscious and autonomic control.
Fight-or-Flight Reaction in the Social Domain
In the limbic system, the hypothalamus controls the activity of both the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which make up the autonomic nervous system (ANS). When the SNS is triggered, the massive discharge of nerve signals affects the functioning of every organ system in the body. These nerve signals are released by the ANS to all the internal organs, as well as secretion of hormones into the bloodstream. Some of these hormone messengers are released as part of the fight-or-flight reaction, giving an extra sense of power in emergency situations. However, most of our stress arises from perceived threats instead of life-threatening danger, hence this automatic fight-or-flight reaction works against us in the social domain. Examples include the psychological stress from the workplace or the everyday demands from the various roles we play, without sufficient resources, such as time, supporting us. As we are typically unable to run or fight, we wind up suppressing the feelings from these stress hormones and neurotransmitters and as a result, the arousal remains inside of us. This state of hyperarousal and chronic stimulation of the SNS then becomes a permanent way of life, eventually ensuing unhealthy consequences psychologically, socially, and physically.
It is important for us to be aware of this inner tendency of the fight-or-flight reaction and how easily it can be triggered, in order to reverse the lifelong pattern of automatic stress reactivity. When our ANS is balanced, we are able to assess objectively and have reasonable control over our response to stressful situations. In turn, we develop the capacity to exercise control over our impulses and emotions, so we can choose how we want to respond, instead of being thrown off balance, mentally and physically.
Neuroplasticity and Interoception
Neuroplasticity operates on a use-dependent manner, such that when a specific circuit fires repeatedly, it then becomes a default setting, establishing the response most likely to occur. Once a particular change becomes well established in the brain, it can prevent other changes from occurring. It is through understanding both the positive and negative effects of plasticity that we can truly understand the extent of human possibilities.
Van Der Kolk (2015) defined the “limbic system theory” as restoring the proper balance between rational and emotional brains to resolve traumatic stress, so that we are in charge of how we respond and conduct our life. Self-awareness is the critical element in learning to free ourselves from stress reactions in moments of arousal. Also known as interoception, this practice allows us to consciously access the emotional brain and activates the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that notices what is going on internally. When we strengthen our awareness and of our internal experience and learn to befriend what is going on inside ourselves, we are empowered to affect change in the way we feel.
In mindfulness meditation and yoga, the attention is focused on the breath and sensations in each moment. The breath reconnects us with calmness and awareness when we lose touch momentarily, bringing us to awareness of our body in that moment. When we begin to notice the connection between the emotions and the body, we can begin to experiment with changing the way we feel (Kabat-Zinn, 2009). Simply by noticing what we feel fosters emotional regulation, which nourishes and restores the body and mind. Meditation develops the capacity to respond mindfully each time we experience discomfort, and simply observe them and let them be as they are, without reacting. When we remain centered in that moment of stress and recognize both the stressfulness of the situation and the impulse to react, the thoughts and feelings associated with the heightened arousal do not have to be suppressed to protect ourselves from losing control. We can allow ourselves to feel the tension and emotions in the moment and recognize the agitations as thoughts, feelings and sensations. This momentary shift from mindless reaction to mindful recognition can reduce the power of the stress reaction. We have a real choice to respond instead out of greater awareness of what is happening. In addition, we will experience a quicker recovery of mental and physical equilibrium as the body reactions subside.
To test this hypothesis, I would run an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program on a number of leaders in the same company, which requires for them to be agile in decision-making and problem solving. Before the program, I would have them do a self-assessment on their tendency to react versus respond. I would also have their team assess them in the way they react or response during a high-stress situation, which I would define and explain via examples. After the program, I would do a reassessment with both the participants and their teams and compare the results.
Our sense of Self is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies. We do not truly know ourselves unless we can feel and interpret our physical sensations, as they can help us navigate safely through life. Changing the brain through mindfulness and increasing the capacity of the frontal lobes enables us respond to stress with awareness, allowing each opportunity to be different. Through cultivating mindfulness, our ability to be fully present can come through even under the most uncomfortable situations. Although numbing painful sensations and emotions can make life tolerable, we lose awareness of what is going on inside our body and with that, the sense of being fully and sensually alive. Awareness brings comfort even in the midst of suffering, and this comfort comes from knowing and trusting ourselves, allowing to be fully present, fully whole.
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Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing