You may be aware that mindfulness meditation helps reduce stress and anxiety, but perhaps you’ve been wondering why or how. What exactly happens in your mind and body when you start practicing even a few simple mindfulness techniques? Let’s look at this question, and demystify why mindfulness is so effective in improving your overall well-being.
The power of mindfulness lies in its ability to redirect your energy away from overlearned habitual patterns that can keep you stuck in a repeating cycle of stress reactivity. It brings you into a state of being from which you can respond to any situation from a more empowered space. Through mindfulness, you get to experience what it feels like to be able to manage stress simply and effectively on your own - wherever you are and whatever you are doing.
Our minds spend most of the time running on Automatic Pilot. We automatically react to things, thinking and feeling in certain ways based on patterns we’ve repeated and reinforced for many years. Some of these are patterns we’ve been unconsciously holding onto most of our lives.
Sometimes these patterns - blaming, worrying, withdrawing, getting angry or anxious - are less than helpful in the present moment. They might make the situation worse rather than better. But they’re automatic. They seem to have a life of their own.
Even though we may see that a pattern is not helpful, we still find ourselves falling back into that same pattern in the heat of the moment. And the pattern often ends up escalating our stress rather than easing it.
We want to do things differently, but we can’t seem to “will” ourselves to change. There is a biological reason behind this. Understanding how our brain keeps us stuck in negative patterns is the first step in moving past them.
As part of our biological survival instinct, our brains want to expend as little energy as possible. One of the ways our brains do this is to create shortcuts. We often call these shortcuts habits. Just as you’ve built a habit of brushing your teeth every morning, you've also developed certain mental habits - default patterns of thoughts and feelings. While some are helpful, others seem to wreak havoc in our lives.
As we grow up, we learn about our world through association - first from our parents and later on from peers and society. We are often unaware of how much our brains absorb others’ worldviews until something drastic happens in our lives - like being overwhelmed by negative feelings. Only then do we start questioning these thought patterns.
Through observation, we learn about the relationship between fear and the very thing that others worry about. For example, imagine someone growing up in a household where their parents always worried about money, and constantly reinforced the message that “there is not enough.” The thought pattern of “lack” became ingrained in their mind over many years. This person’s mental habit, when it comes to thoughts of money, may now be one of worry. The association between money and lack is a trigger for the Autopilot of stress.
Just the thought of lack or uncertainty can be enough to start the cascade of stress chemicals in the body. Fortunately, mindfulness is one of the ways to notice these limiting thought patterns and to stop that cascade in its tracks.
When you practice thinking and feeling a certain way often enough, the neural networks in your brain associated with those thoughts and emotions grow stronger.1 This is exactly why it is so easy to fall back into negative patterns. Every thought of stress and anxiety snowballs on itself. Every thought of gratitude, joy, or peace does the same. Your mental attention to these thought patterns is what reinforces them and gives them power.
When you have trained your attention to go where you want it to go, rather than being driven by the automatic pilot, then you have tapped into the power of mindfulness for reducing stress. Your automatic thought patterns don’t have to have control over you. You can integrate mindfulness into your life to retrain that Autopilot in your brain.
Your brain has a wonderful capacity to adapt and create new ways of being, thinking, feeling, and responding - new neural networks. It’s called neuroplasticity. When you move your attention into the present moment, you weaken those stressful thought loops. Wherever you shift your focus is where your brain’s wiring gets stronger.2 This is where mindfulness comes in to help.
Mindfulness meditation practice strengthens your present moment awareness. This helps you become more aware of exactly what’s happening in and around you - even during moments of stress.
When you’ve trained your attention to “be” in your body, to feel your breathing, and to stay in the present moment, you develop the ability to pause, which interrupts the automatic pilot, and allows you to be with things as they are. Here you can absorb important data about what’s happening and see creative options you might have missed on automatic pilot. Even when your attention wants to go elsewhere, or things are stressful, you’ve trained yourself to stay so you can choose how to respond based on what’s actually called for in the moment. This kind of a response tends to be much more skillful and helpful than an automatic one.
You can’t change what you’re not aware of. Mindfulness builds your awareness, so change becomes possible. When you’ve trained yourself to stay with an unpleasant experience rather than automatically react, you start to notice the automatic impulse as it’s arising. You are more aware of what’s happening. You start to have a choice about what to do in the next moment - follow the automatic impulse or try something different. This is your point of power.
Interestingly, the way to change the future is to be in the present moment. It’s the only moment in which you can begin to unwind the repetitive and automatic cycle of stress.
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”
- Amit Ray, PhD.
Mindfulness helps you reshape your thinking so you no longer feel powerless over your life's circumstances. And this can start to change your whole life. But it takes practice – a little bit of meditation every day.
It takes time to build up your physical strength when you first start going to the gym or a new workout class. In a similar manner, it also takes time to build your mental muscles of focus and attention to the present.
To get rid of unwanted behaviors and patterns, you have to get familiar with new techniques to do things differently. Learning usually involves an element of practice so you can build a skill. Once you are comfortable with that skill, it can start to become a habit - a good one. Just as you can build new physical habits, you can build new mental habits that help you feel at ease in your daily life.
In a workout class, you may have to push past your comfort zones to do those first ten pushups. When learning to shift your attention, your mind may at first give you reasons to return to your old thought patterns. But over time, your mindfulness practice will help you discover that you can redirect your attention to the present moment by experiencing the simple sensations of your body and your breath.
You are not a slave to the anxious Autopilot in your brain. You can disengage it through mindful attention to the present moment. You dissolve those automatic stress reactions by redirecting your focus in a new direction. And learning to be in the moment is a skill that you can start cultivating today.
There is an easier way to shift out of that frustrating loop of stress and anxiety. Experience for yourself how mindfulness can relieve stress and anxiety by learning more and integrating it into your life. To help you get started, I am currently offering a FREE webinar “Learn 3 Quick Mindfulness Practices for Stress Relief.”
Simply click here to access my webinar “Learn 3 Quick Mindfulness Practices for Stress Relief” and start feeling more peace today.
 Dr. Joe Dispenza, "Breaking The Habit of Being Yourself," Published by HayHouse Inc., 2012
 Dr. Rick Hanson, "How to Trick Your Brain for Happiness - Greater Good Science ....", 2011, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_trick_your_brain_for_happiness
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