Some stress is good, even required to elicit activity. Too much stress is bad leading to feeling overwhelmed. Amy Arnsten, Neurobiology and Psychology Professor at Yale University, calls this the “Goldilocks of the brain.” Stress must be just right to achieve peak performance. This sweet spot is different for everyone, and even different in the same person over time and different based on the task being performed. We find ourselves in the zone when we achieve that perfect amount of stress.
High stress over time can have a debilitating effect on the mind and body. The body reacts to a threatening situation, the flight or fight response. Blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and perspiration all increase. Blood-flow moves toward the extremities and blood becomes stickier. Inflammatory hormones are activated. All these physiological responses are intended to save you. However, when they don’t switch off or if the body is frequently in this stress state, it becomes unhealthy. Chronic stress is a risk factor for several chronic illnesses.
Working memory is short-term memory used to work on the task at hand. Anxiety and pressure to perform reduces this capacity. The same parts of the brain are used for attention training through mindfulness. Allow time to become calm and focus on the activity to increase capacity. Today people pride themselves on multi-tasking. Multi-taskers are often on autopilot, toggling between tasks and not paying much attention to anything. Performance and enjoyment both suffer as a result.
The mind tells the brain it’s stressed. It’s our perception that triggers these responses. Often, it’s our misperception that keeps us in an active fight or flight state. Rumination, exaggeration, anticipation and imagination, perceiving negative outcomes and threats prolong the stress state. As we continue to dwell, we reinforce this thinking and wire our brains to stay in the rut.
Learning to be less automatically and habitually reactive to unhelpful thoughts, emotions and impulses is possibly a prime way in which mindfulness helps remodel the brain and thereby protect the body from the damaging effects of chronic stress and depression. According to an Issue One 2008 article in the NeuroLeadership Journal, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans have shown people who regularly meditate have thicker brain regions that are associated with attention, being aware of oneself and sensory processing. This means a regular practice of meditation may reduce cognitive decline associated with normal aging.
Two terms to describe mindfulness are dispassionate and non-evaluative. Dispassionate means being non-judgmental and non-reactive about your thoughts. Non-evaluative is a state where you can decide whether to engage in your thoughts. Learning and practicing to be aware of our thoughts can lead to not being controlled by our thoughts.
We all meditate. Without paying attention, we meditate on anger, worry and other negative and harmful thoughts. Conscious meditation can help us to accept and not react to unhelpful thoughts. Conscious meditation doesn’t give us a false sense of joy. It brings us peace and focus. It allows our natural state of happiness to be restored.