We have the ability to regulate our thoughts and emotions instead of our thoughts and emotions placing regulations on us.
How is this possible? Through practicing mindfulness we can experience the profound effects of being attune to the here and now in our world.
Mindfulness simply is a practice of paying careful attention, without judgment or labeling, to the details of the present moment that are often missed as we rush through our daily lives. I know, for many ‘mindfulness’ sounds like another buzzword as so often we hear successful people both in the corporate and creative worlds give credit to the effects of its practice.
This is for good reason.
We now know from research that we have the ability to literally rewire the neural pathways in our brains, those that regulate our emotions, thoughts, and reactions. This means we can cultivate new neural pathways – that lead us to compassion, gratitude, and joy instead of anxiety, fear and anger.
First, it’s important to understand how the mind works. Many of us go about our day on autopilot. We complete our same morning routine half asleep, take the same commute without much thought or awareness along the way and find ourselves eating more of the same each week while zoning out to the latest Netflix. We form these habits of mind and body that allow us to live in our fast pace world and achieve a great deal, but the consequences of living in a constant state of unconscious reactivity does not allow us to show up and be present for our lives.
The consequences of living this way can be quite costly. As a therapist, I have privilege of an outside perspective on the extent of how much my clients miss out on in their lives. What is lost is usually very important information and perspective about their lives, relationships, and health. When I have a client who is constantly in a fight or flight mode their brains are scanning the environment for any perceived threat. This, once effective at keeping us from harm or threat to our survival, is no longer vital nearly as much in today’s modern world. Threats to our survival have changed. For most of us, given we are in relatively safe environments, threats to our physical safety have much disappeared. Now we are faced with worries about things like paying off all that student debt, affording to live in increasingly expensive California, planning for our futures in increasingly competitive fields.
Worries and threats today do seem like an upgrade from the competition in the pre-historic forest. As we have evolved as a species, biology hasn’t quite caught up. Unfortunately, our nervous system cannot distinguish between “I am being chased by a tiger” and “I have a stressful deadline at work”. While we are in this threat response we find ourselves making quick shortcuts, such as making assumptions, usually based on what has happened or worked in the past rather than gaining full awareness of the here and now.
For many of us we are constantly in this reactive state. From the minute we hit rush hour traffic, to the way we respond to our coworkers and loved ones, we are relying on unconscious thoughts, emotions and feelings to guide our behavior. This has significant physical, emotional, and psychological consequences. We experience tension in the body, which can show up as high blood pressure and inflammation, painful emotional states such as anxiety and depression, and destructive habits such as addictions and obsessions.
Mindfulness offers us a way to turn off autopilot and experience things more accurately by tuning in to the present moment. We have the ability to label what we are experiencing, thinking and feeling more accurately and interrupt these stress cycles. We can start living our lives with more intention for everyday choices and behavior and show up to our lives as our more authentic self, thus experiencing more joy and happiness in everyday.
Science tells us we can program our brain’s automatic response simply (not to be mistaken for easily!) by conscious effort to build new pathways. We can do this literally anywhere and any given moment. We can choose to check in with ourselves through out the day by tuning into what it feels like in our own bodies. Maybe this is in a few minutes in the shower or on on a crowded train. We can consciously choose to notice if we are tense or relaxed, if our mind is busy or calm.
Being able to focus on breathing we have a powerful ability to help regulate our autonomous nervous system. Slow, deep breaths send a signal to the brain that all is well and activates the parasympathetic response. With this we can slow our heart rate and our body’s stress response. Our minds calm. A very powerful tool when faced with anxiety.
As we practice mindfulness it is very important to know that our minds will wander, we do not have control over what appears in our mind. What we can control is if we decide to place judgment or labels (good, bad) on what we are thinking. It has been important to let my clients know that our minds can be thought of as a muscle that is strengthened the more we use it. By practicing being mindful we are learning to relate differently to our experiences, so we don’t find ourselves stuck in old, problematic patterns. Studies show our brains adapt and even change according to our behavior. We strengthen whichever neural pathways we use most often or as neuroscientists like to say, “neurons that fire together, wire together”.
In the next post I will share some realistic ways we can rewire our brains towards happiness, compassion, and gratitude in everyday life.