by Jeff Tarrant, Ph.D., BCN: How mindfulness acts as the perfect counterbalance to a stressed-out brain…
This is an interesting and somewhat complex question. To some degree, any form of meditation may provide some assistance, and in most cases, any meditation is better than no meditation. However, because of the specific way that different meditation practices impact the brain, mindfulness may be your best bet to counteract the impact of chronic stress and anxiety.
Before we go further, let me say a few words about what I mean by mindfulness.
For the purposes of this post, I will use Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition, which basically describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.” (Kabat-Zinn, 2005) This is important, as it separates these practices from other common forms of meditation, including styles that emphasize focus or concentration, loving-kindness or compassion, or expanded consciousness.
When mindfulness is practiced in line with the definition used above, a few interesting things happen in the brain. First, theta brainwaves increase in a specific portion of the frontal lobe called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). Theta waves in this region of the brain are associated with relaxed, gentle attention. This is the kind of attention that is engaged when you observe what is happening in the present moment, yet are not attached to any of it.
Importantly, this is the exact opposite of the brainwaves seen in this region during stress and anxiety (Shapiro, Jr., 2008; West, 1987). When the brain is fixated on something disturbing, the ACC becomes overactivated, increasing beta and high beta brainwaves. When this happens, a person is unable to shift gears. They become stuck on certain thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, which can generate or exacerbate feelings of anxiety.
The other part of the brain that appears to be directly impacted by mindfulness practices is the Posterior Cingulate Cortex, or PCC (Garrison, K., et al. 2013). The PCC is the hub of the Default Mode Network and is very much involved in self-referential mental tasks. If you are thinking about yourself or something that relates to your identity, the PCC is going to be engaged.
It is a small leap to see that overactivation of the PCC could also be connected to stress and anxiety. If you are stressed, what is it about? You! If you are anxious, it is generally a result of preoccupation with your beliefs or fears about the future or how things will affect you and your family and friends. Mindfulness practice allows us to shift into more of an observer role, gaining perspective, and unhooking from the tendency to experience everything as personal.
So, in a very tangible way, mindfulness practices provide a counter-balance to anxiety patterns in the brain (Tarrant, 2017). In future posts, we will explore specific mindfulness strategies, trauma-informed meditation practices, and meditation for other mental health concerns.