Friday, October 19, 2012

Mindfulness 101

As sunny days become a distant memory and the gray clouds roll in, we start to get the higher tides of winter, which means that from time to time our driveway and the road beyond will be under water.

There are a couple of places in the driveway that have a disconcerting habit of bubbling up when this happens, and looking at this picture this morning, I thought about that and, at the same time, how much these bubbles resemble a brain.

I'm sure the connection is the result of the book I'm currently reading: it's by Goldie Hawn, and it's called 10 Mindful Minutes.  Hawn has set up a foundation whose charge is to bring lessons about the biology and practice of mindfulness into elementary schools, and this is a book to help parents teach their children these same lessons.

I've actually been finding the book extremely helpful, even if I've read much of what it discusses in other places.  Hawn puts a lot of topical information together in one place and presents it all quite succinctly in terms even a child can understand, and I realize I've already been applying it successfully, both for myself and for my own daughter, now in her early 20's.  So I thought I'd share the VERY most helpful bits briefly here -- forgive me if you already know this stuff.

We already know the brain is divided into left and right hemispheres, but there are some other important things to know about.  There's the reptilian brain, that lives at the base of the skull and takes care of autonomic reflexes, like making your heart beat, your lungs breathe, and your throat swallow.  There's also the limbic, or emotional brain, that's responsible for the way you feel -- happy, sad, worried, etc.  And there's a very important part of the limbic brain, called the amygdala, that Hawn describes as a sort of Guard Dog: it barks when something bad or good is happening, sending out flight, fight or freeze signals when it thinks bad stuff is going on, making us feel like we're in danger even if we're not.  The Guard Dog also sends out signals to smile and be happy.

The biggest part of the brain, she goes on to say, is the cortical brain, which is responsible for remembering, thinking, talking, and helping you pay attention.  And the very front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, just behind your forehead, is sort of a Wise Old Owl: it "looks at stuff, thinks about it, remembers what you see and hear... and is in charge of thinking, planning, reasoning, solving problems, making good choices, and being sure you dont let your emotions take over and do mean things because you're sad or angry."

So here's the part that matters most: the Guard Dog, when upset, releases cortisol and adrenaline, stress hormones that unleash the symptoms of fear and anxiety. Sometimes, in true danger, this is helpful, but at other times it's not; the Guard Dog sometimes over-reacts.   The problem is that these hormones can shut down the pre-frontal cortex so we can't think straight.  But here's the key: if we breathe deeply and count to ten, the brain will relax, the Guard Dog will stop barking, and the Wise Old Owl will help us figure out what you need to do to solve the problem.  And if we keep doing that, stopping to breathe and calm, we can actually build new pathways in the brain and get better at controlling the Guard Dog and behaving reasonably.

I know it sounds unbearably simple.  But I'm already finding that giving myself simple language to understand how this system works -- and knowing that we can change -- is helping me to get better at dealing with everyday stress. No wonder life goes better when I take time to meditate!

No comments: