Mindful Brain Exercises
By Dr. Vanessa Brown
Mindfulness is a type of meditation that involves being aware of the present moment. It means not allowing yourself to get lost in thoughts, instead coming back to your current experience in the here-and-now. It is a lovely practice for anyone, but can be especially helpful for those who suffer from anxiety, stress, and racing thoughts. I’ve even had success with teens practicing mindfulness to help improve their attention and focus.
The Amygdala and the Prefrontal Cortex
In the brain, mindfulness and coming back to the present moment works your prefrontal cortex. This is the area responsible for planning, decision making, and other complex cognitive processes. It is often juxtaposed to the amygdala, which is the “flight-or-flight” area of the brain and tends to make decisions that optimize your safety even if they aren’t the best overall decisions.
Let’s say, for example, you were on your way to work and hit a detour that suggested you take a bridge to get there. Your amygdala (fight-or-flight brain) might send you the thought “Don’t take the bridge! Bridges are dangerous! Just go home and call in sick because this is too scary!”
If you have an anxiety disorder, you might listen to the amygdala and what it thinks you should do. But your prefrontal cortex thinks a bit differently. It knows that if you miss another day of work, you are at risk of losing your job and even if your boss decides to let you stay, you have just missed out on your wages. Plus, the bridge only takes 5 minutes to cross and has carried the weight of trucks much heavier. Your prefrontal cortex says “My calculations have determined that the benefit outweighs the risk of crossing this bridge, so go for it!”
All that happens in a fraction of a second, but the trick is getting your brain to defer to the prefrontal cortex for such decisions. And this can take some practice. Each time we come back to our present awareness, we are practicing moving energy from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex. Remember that the moving of the energy is the most important part, so even if you can’t “stay present” for very long, you are still succeeding each time you catch yourself wondering off and then come back to the now.
Try these quick tips that can be integrated into your day:
- Imagine your thoughts are being carried on a train. When the thought train comes into your mind, be sure to thank it for its service, wave, and let it move on. It might come b
- Each time you receive a notification on your phone, take a moment to look around you before responding.
- ack around the track, that’s okay, keep letting it pass through the station.
- Set a timer for one minute and see how many sounds you can identify around you
- For the first few bites of your meal, eat very slowly and allow yourself time to experience your food. How does it smell? What is the texture? Can you taste each ingredient?
- While seated, notice the sensation of your feet on the ground and your body against the chair.