Practice mindfulness to give your brain a mental workout

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by life? The demands may seem impossible or like everything needs to be done NOW! I’m certain there are those days when you may even want to stay under the covers. Besides juggling family, career and community, there also are the times when life just falls apart: Death, divorce, job loss, economic downturns, health challenges can meet any one of us at any time. As life becomes more complex, we need effective tools to deal with the challenges of this world.

Not only do you need a strategy or plan to deal with the challenges themselves, but you also need a way to deal with the stress so you can manage your own emotions and expectations. The links between stress and disease are common knowledge; however, stress also highjacks your brain. When this happens it makes it hard to think clearly, your mood changes and you may become short tempered – little problems seem much bigger and you feel less equipped to deal with them. To make matters worse, when your work performance suffers, it can affect you financially. What’s more, you may become cynical and damage your relationships, which may lead to depression and feelings of being overcome and helpless.

It does not have to be that way.

The concept of mindfulness, with over three decades of clinical research, is becoming increasingly employed in these situations. Clinically, mindfulness has been shown to improve the lives of those suffering with stress, anxiety, depression and pain. For the rest of us, mindfulness has been shown to enhance creativity and problem solving and increase the ability to bounce back quickly from challenges.

Mindfulness is the practice of increasing one’s ability to stay consciously aware of the present moment. Through daily practice a person learns to direct their conscious awareness, giving them the choice where to focus their attention. The practice calms the nervous system and emotions while also providing relief from those pesky negative thoughts that come uninvited. Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in decreasing both stress and pain.

The amygdala – the part of the brain associated with the stress and fear response – has been shown to reduce in size after completing a mindfulness-based program. Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a study to look at the impact of an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program on the brains of patients with generalized anxiety disorder, a debilitating condition causing constant worry and an inability to control emotions. After the mindfulness program, in addition to a decrease in amygdala activation, there were notable increases in connectivity between the amygdala and several regions of the brain that are responsible for successful emotional regulation.

It is amazing to think that 20 to 40 minutes of mindfulness practice each day can actually restructure your brain to help you be more successful in life. It is a mental workout the way going to the gym is a physical workout. It is a valuable skill to be able to create a space in your heart big enough to hold the pain of things happening to you that you do not want to be happening and know that it is just a season. Something miraculous happens when you are able to turn toward unwanted, unpleasant or insecure feelings with mindful awareness and compassion. You get to connect with that which is basically good about you. With practice, despite circumstances, you learn to live in the present moment where you can find the little joys that make being human special.


About the author

Debra Kahnen, BSN, RN, CMSRN
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Debra Kahnen has been a registered nurse for more than 30 years. She is a nursing supervisor on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas and “Healthy Practice Environments” column editor for MedSurg Matters. She is currently doing a research study on “Chronic Pain and the effects of self-regulation and mindfulness.”

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Practice mindfulness to give your brain a mental workout